WILKESBORO — Imagine yourself, if you will, working a shift in James’ boots for a second.

He’s employed at Tyson Foods, a good but not great job. Steady pay, steady hours in an industry deemed essential. But it’s a grind; Tyson is a chicken-processing operation, Wilkes County’s largest employer.

But like other industrial meat-packing facilities across the nation, Tyson has a problem. COVID-19 is running wild inside the complex. Cases have spiked over the past several days to the point where widespread testing has finally been ordered.

So here’s the dilemma for James and nearly 1,000 of his co-workers: Clock in, feed the family and risk infection, sickness and death or stay home, remain safe but lose his paycheck and any shot at unemployment benefits.

“The situation has gotten so much worse,” James said. “It’s infested now. … We’re between a rock and hard place. You either go to work or you don’t have any money. You can’t get unemployment because you’re not laid off.”

Taking steps

The outbreak at Tyson has been reflected in daily reports of COVID-19 for more than a week now.

As of April 23, Wilkes County was reporting just 13 positive cases. By Tuesday afternoon, the number had increased more than 10 times to 144.

The damage isn’t limited to Wilkes, either. Neighboring and surrounding counties have seen spikes, too, and commuting workers — and those who’ve come in close contact with them — have tested positive for coronavirus.

In Forsyth County, some 127 cases have been added to public tallies since April 27, a majority attributable in some way to the outbreak at the Tyson plant.

As worrisome as that is for public health and company officials, it’s far grimmer for hourly workers who depend on that next check to pay rent and keep the lights on.

“It’s not safe,” James said. “They tell us ‘Wear your mask you’ll be OK. You’re more likely to get it at the grocery store than here.’ I feel like they’re treating us as if we’re expendable.”

(Obviously, James isn’t the man’s real name. Tyson could well come down on him — hard — for speaking his mind.)

“They make us sign all kinds of papers,” he said.

I imagine that sort of arrangement pre-dates COVID-19 and stems from concerns about infiltration by animal-rights and/or anti-meat groups.

To be fair, the company has taken measures to keep its people relatively safe. Derek Burleson, a Tyson public-relations manager, outlined them in email Tuesday afternoon.

“Tyson is committed to protecting its team members, who are going above and beyond, to help us maintain a healthy and stable food supply for the nation,” he wrote.

Specific measures include: providing onset testing, taking workers’ temperature with 150 walk-through infrared scanners in some plants, encouraging social distancing and providing masks, face shields and hand-sanitizer.

“We are educating team members on best practices on how to stay safe, both at work at and at home, and are deploying these instructions in more than 15 languages,” Burleson wrote.

Still, despite stepped-up safety measures, it’s also fair to say that front-line workers remain wary.

“They’ve put up plexiglas, but that’s not stopping a virus,” James said. “We’re still breathing the same air and (people) are still standing right next to you.”

‘Chicken, chicken, chicken’

Workers from the Wilkes County Health Department went Monday to three shifts at the Tyson complex to collect samples from 200 workers for testing.

The remainder of the plant’s workers will be tested today through Saturday by Matrix Medical, a company hired by Tyson.

John Yates, the Wilkes County manager, noted that his county is working to contain two active outbreaks — one at Tyson and another in the Wilkes Health and Rehabilitation Center. “Eighteen percent of the cases are community spread and 82 percent have been from close contact,” he said.

Roughly translated, that means officials have been able to identify the carrier through contact tracing 82 percent of the time. School nurses, Yates said, have been enlisted to help contact tracing.

“Tyson has been a great partner for us for many years,” Yates said. “We want to see them beat this thing as well as keeping our residents safe.”

Wishing well for the company and its workers are not mutually exclusive; it’s not an either/or situation.

But this is also true: Many chicken-plant workers aren’t blessed with a lot of options. They can’t work from a home office. Economic opportunity is limited.

“It’s a scary situation,” James said. “Don’t nobody work there but poor white people and brown people. Black people, minorities. It feels like taking advantage of the little guy.”

People have to work and provide for their families. But it’s a crying shame that workers, through no fault of their own, are feeling the stress of an impossible choice.

“I’m afraid of bringing it back to my whole family,” said James, who’s awaiting test results. “Chicken, chicken, chicken … it just doesn’t make sense.”

ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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