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An Award-Winning Investigation Into Deadly COVID Outbreaks at Foster Farms

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detail photo of hands holding prints of family photos
Alma Ruth Hernández Nuñez holds a photo of her late husband, Eufracio Caballero, and their children at her home in Sanger, on Aug. 11, 2021. Caballero, who died from COVID in February 2021, was one of 285 Foster Farms employees who tested positive for COVID-19 in early December 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The California Report Magazine rebroadcast this story this week after it won a national Edward R. Murrow award, among the most prestigious honors in journalism. KQED’s investigation of COVID-19 outbreaks at Foster Farms, originally broadcast last fall, won best news documentary in the large market radio category. Here's a full list of the 2022 winners.

In 2020, California’s Foster Farms became the site of one of the nation’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks at a meat or poultry plant. The California Report’s Central Valley reporter, Alex Hall, spent a year and a half talking to spouses and family members of workers who spent decades at the company’s chicken-processing plants. She found that hundreds of Foster Farms workers tested positive for the virus in 2020. Sixteen people died, and at least 20 others were hospitalized.

Hall’s investigation showed that as plants stayed open to maintain the food supply, and workers got sick from COVID-19, or even died, Foster Farms didn’t always give a complete picture of the problem to health officials, state regulators or their own employees. She introduced listeners to families who lost loved ones who worked at Foster Farms — families who are grieving, struggling financially and trying to make sense of what happened.

This encore rebroadcast includes some updates since the story first aired in October 2021. This summer, Foster Farms was sold to a Connecticut-based private equity firm, Atlas Holdings. The company’s new chair and CEO, Donnie Smith, is the former head of Tyson Foods, one of the world’s biggest meat and poultry producers and processors. The California Report reached out to Atlas Holdings with questions, including whether there were any lessons learned from how the company’s previous owners handled the COVID-19 outbreaks.

In a statement, Smith responded: “There are many lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, for federal and state government, public health officials, and the private sector. The delivery of timely data to public health officials was and remains essential to efforts to combat disease and is something that Foster Farms is irrevocably committed to ensuring. More broadly, since June, my team and I have focused squarely on creating a workplace culture that is second to none — a culture that nobody wants to walk away from.”


Smith also noted that the company recently increased pay for workers at Foster Farms’ processing facility in Livingston, Merced County, by 25%.

One of the challenges the families of workers who died face is the complicated and slow process of receiving death benefits. Since this story first aired, some family members have finally begun to receive financial compensation. Rosa Velasquez, for example, whose husband, Gregorio Velasquez, died in January of 2021 after working at a Foster Farms plant in Fresno for about 20 years, began receiving benefits in May, about a year after she first applied for them.

Velasquez is still waiting to find out what amount her children and grandchildren will receive. Alma Ruth Hernández Núñez, the widow of another employee, Eufracio Caballero, also began receiving benefits earlier this year, according to her attorney. The amount their children will receive is also still being determined.

According to a spokesperson from California's Department of Industrial Relations, Foster Farms is still appealing multiple citations Cal/OSHA issued against the company in 2021.

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