When Daljit Singh retired in April after 26 years of processing chicken carcasses at Foster Farms in Livingston, friends called him “the lucky one”.

He had avoided the crippling injuries of his colleagues: knee replacements, shoulder operations, nerve damage that led to "clawed hand".

Working eight-hour shifts six nights a week still took a toll on your back, shoulders and legs, said Singh, 68, an Indian immigrant who spoke to The Times through an interpreter.

Supervisors accelerated production lines to compensate for the sickness of the employees, Singh said. Those who couldn't keep up or work overtime were punished under a point system that resulted in layoffs.

Then, in March, a new pandemic threat emerged – and it's one that state officials still don't have a full picture of, even six months later, as a Times review of documents shows.

"I'm grateful that I was able to get out beforehand – that I didn't get the coronavirus," he said. "People are very, very scared."

Processing food has always been dangerous work. Compared to other sectors, food workers are 9.5 times more likely to die in the workplace. The injuries are particularly high in meat packaging, which has an average of two amputations per week.

The pandemic has only exacerbated these threats to a workforce composed primarily of blacks, immigrants and migrants. Not only do workers fear becoming infected with the virus, but they will also be injured if more employees get sick and fewer staff are left to cope with the increased demands on food production.

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People gather for a candlelight vigil on Thursday in Livingston, California to honor the eight people who died in a COVID-19 outbreak at Foster Farms' Livingston facility.

(Andrew Kuhn / Merced Sun-Star)

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Lety Valencia interprets for a speaker during the vigil.

(Andrew Kuhn / Merced Sun-Star)

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People gather for a candlelight vigil on Thursday in Livingston, California to honor the eight people who died in a COVID-19 outbreak at Foster Farms' Livingston facility.

(Andrew Kuhn / Merced Sun-Star)

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At the Max Foster Sports Complex in Livingston, people gather for a candlelight vigil.

(Andrew Kuhn / Merced Sun-Star)

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Deep Singh speaks during the vigil.

(Andrew Kuhn / Merced Sun-Star)

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People gather for a candlelight vigil on Thursday in Livingston, California to honor the eight people who died in a COVID-19 outbreak at Foster Farms' Livingston facility.

(Andrew Kuhn / Merced Sun-Star)

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People gather for a candlelight vigil on Thursday in Livingston, California to honor the eight people who died in a COVID-19 outbreak at Foster Farms' Livingston facility.

(Andrew Kuhn / Merced Sun-Star)

Since April, more than 53,000 food workers nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 200 have died, most of them in the meat packaging industry. In Los Angeles County, food processing is the second highest number of workplace infections after nursing homes.

Despite the escalating operations, an investigation by The Times found enormous inconsistencies in reporting in the workplace.

Some companies have been slow to report cases to local officials or test staff. Others with well-known outbreaks have not filed reports of sick or dead workers with the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health known as Cal / OSHA.

The agency is understaffed and overwhelmed, and has been struggling to weather the crisis with little guidance from its federal counterpart, the US Occupational Safety and Health Agency. This has been accused by advocates of workers giving up their role in order to ensure safe jobs.

On Wednesday, the Foster Farms factory where Singh worked closed for thorough cleaning after Merced County's health officials learned that eight of its employees had died after contracting the virus and another 358 tested positive.

A review of the Cal / OSHA data by the Times found that Foster Farms reported only one COVID-19 death from January 1 to August 13. This is the latest available data. A company note dated August 24th said nine employees across the company had died.

Martha Vera, who has been with the plant for 24 years, mourns the loss of her husband, a truck driver from Foster Farms, who died on August 14 as a result of COVID-19.

"What does this company really want?" she said with tears. “How many people do you think should die to do something … so the company protects its employees? How many more? Can someone tell me? "

The Foster Farms facility in Livingston, California, 25 miles southeast of Modesto, is a major employer in the community.

(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The facility has been battling an outbreak since June, but Cal / OSHA did not personally inspect the facility until August 3rd.

The county's decision to shut down the facility came weeks after local health officials reported Foster Farms for repeated testing failures and instructed management to provide staff with face covers and to accurately report Cal / OSHA COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths .

United Farm Workers of America, which represents workers at the Livingston plant, said union officials were unable to get precise answers about how many workers died and when. "Foster Farms tried to cover up the number of deaths and the sanctity of life for everyone during this crisis," wrote organizer Elizabeth Strater.

Ira Brill, vice president of communications at Foster Farms, declined to comment on the upcoming Cal / OSHA investigation, blaming California's reopening efforts for the surge in infections in a two-page statement to The Times.

"Foster Farms can protect employees while they are on our premises and inform them of protective measures they should always take, but we cannot fully protect them when they are exposed in the county community," said Brill.

The scale of the Livingston outbreak was not publicly known until after the shutdown, as Merced County stopped reporting online the total number of infections at the site in July, citing health concerns.

According to the health director Dr. Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp, the county is still tracking cases on the ground, but is no longer making the numbers public because the information has been "used in a negative light" and "misunderstood". Concerns from local companies played a role in the decision, but were not a “driving factor”.

Nanyonjo-Kemp said working closely with businesses is key to keeping jobs safe. "We are not trying to destroy the way people work through reputation or in any other way." She described the Livingston plant as an outlier and said other employers had followed COVID-19 guidelines.

It is unclear how exactly Cal / OSHA will track outbreaks in the workplace or coordinate with local health officials. The law requires employers to report serious work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths immediately.

Internal emails released in July show officials are refining guidelines for voluntary employers but providing little information on enforcement or coordination to deal with an influx of COVID-19-related complaints in the workplace. State data released in late August showed large gaps in employer reports on sick and injured workers.

When Merced County officials first tried to shut the plant down, Foster Farms cited President Trump's orders to consider meat packaging facilities as "critical infrastructure." This allowed the company to stay for 48 hours. Trump's order, fueled by industry lobbying and issued in late April, has been derided by unions as an excuse to keep the plants running despite widespread outbreaks.

Foster Farms' safety concerns are not confined to the Livingston facility. Separate investigations are underway at the company's Fresno and Turlock locations where an employee died on the job on April 27.

Juanita Salazar and her son Luis Salazar

Juanita Salazar and her son Luis Salazar

(Salazar family)

Juanita Salazar remembers rushing home after a 10-hour day at work to drive her son Luis to the turkey factory for his night shift. Although the two lived together, they had barely seen each other during the pandemic.

"Bye, Luis, I love you," said Juanita as she drove off and gave him a kiss. Less than two hours later, the 30-year-old stood lifeless, leaning over a conveyor belt with his skull stuck between two metal rails.

At the time of the accident, Foster Farms had a regular staff shortage due to sick or quarantined workers, according to community leaders.

The family and their attorney have not been able to contact Cal / OSHA, which is investigating the accident. According to official guidelines, the agency must contact family members early on in an investigation into the death.

Salazar's death is among the dozen that occur annually in food processing across the country. Back in December, Cal / OSHA chief Doug Parker pledged to take a closer look at the surge in workplace deaths in California, including Latino workers who caused 43% of all construction site deaths in 2018.

In a meeting in August, Parker said Cal / OSHA had received reports of 122 deaths and 494 injuries and illnesses related to COVID-19, which he believes is an "undercount".

The Times noted that some companies provided detailed information on individual workers affected by COVID-19, while others with well-known outbreaks did not submit reports to Cal / OSHA – such as Smithfield Foods, which operates Farmer John's Vernon facility.

Cal / OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza did not comment on inconsistencies in employer reporting but said the agency had recently taken steps to combat outbreaks in food establishments, including further inspections.

"We will continue to prioritize these facilities, especially if there is evidence of workplace transmission," she wrote in an email. Monterroza also acknowledged that coordination is a "challenge" for the agency and requires communication with "60 different local health authorities across the state".

The agency is now seeking recruitment based on articles from The Times describing year-long vacancies and mismanagement that Cal / OSHA has understaffed, including bilingual inspectors.

On Friday, the agency issued 11 COVID-19-related quotes to employers in the food processing, meat packaging, healthcare, agriculture and retail sectors, calling it "the first of many to be released in the coming weeks and months." None of the quotes concerned employers mentioned in this story.

The Livingston plant is allowed to reopen after Labor Day, but district officials warned the closure could be extended if Foster Farms continues to violate orders.

Farmer John's facility was plagued by calls for a similar shutdown.

Emails verified by The Times show Smithfield was slow to inform Vernon of positive cases and confirmed an outbreak on April 17 after city officials received a complaint about numerous sick workers. But as the outbreak increased, Vernon officials told Smithfield that Trump's order no longer required reporting positive cases to the city.

When Cal / OSHA inspected Farmer John on May 27th, union officials pushed for a complete shutdown after more than 100 workers fell ill.

A Smithfield employee, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation and tested positive for the virus, said he feared the speed of production lines has increased, which could lead to further injuries.

"This is how I eat and pay bills," said the worker, adding that if family members had their way, "I wouldn't go back to work."

Smithfield declined to answer questions about his work at Farmer John. In a statement emailed to The Times, the company said it had a duty to ensure the safety of workers and had taken precautions at its sites across the country, including: B. the slowdown in production.

Last month, the Hispanic Caucus of Congress called for a federal investigation into meat packaging, including approving faster line speeds, which has been shown to lead to an increase in catastrophic injuries. The request followed the July Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, a bill co-sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) To prevent facilities from accelerating production during the pandemic.

Occupational safety advocates have criticized Cal / OSHA for anemic enforcement, pointing to late investigations and complaints that go unanswered.

In May, several spoke out in favor of nationwide emergency standards that require employers to take greater precautionary measures against COVID-19. After months of discussion, Cal / OSHA signaled support for the proposed standards.

However, an independent board of directors appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom to oversee policy changes at the agency said the new rules would create an unnecessary "additional regulatory burden" – reflecting concerns from groups of companies that the proposed standards have have criticized as double.

Instead, the board wrote, Cal / OSHA should focus its "limited resources" on current enforcement and consultation efforts. An official vote on this issue is scheduled for the end of this month.

In the meantime, workers continue to get sick.

At least one worker has died of COVID-19 at One World Beef in Imperial Valley, a slaughterhouse north of the U.S.-Mexico border. District officials declined to provide coronavirus infection numbers for any food processing sites they oversee and wrote in an email in late July that the matter was "currently under investigation".

George Medina, a United Food and Commercial Workers organizer who represents 1.3 million workers nationwide, said more than 150 workers at the plant had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Much of the predominantly Latin American workforce resides in Mexicali, Mexico and has concerns about cross-border transmission.

One World Beef is one of many businesses that, despite criticism, have criticized their participation and could encourage sick employees to continue working. During the pandemic, the plant offered workers who work full shifts weekly bonuses of $ 100 and 10 pounds of meat.

A similar bonus was mentioned in a lawsuit filed last month by Pennsylvania meat packers against federal OSHA claiming the agency ignored their safety concerns.

One World Beef did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A worker who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation said many who had symptoms of COVID-19 stayed silent to keep working. "I insulted her," he said. "It's for your health, mine and everyone. But you also care about your income."

Times associate Rong-Gong Lin II of San Francisco contributed to this report.

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