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The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret

First, Hormel gutted the union. Then it sped up the line. And when the pig-brain machine made workers sick, they got canned.

But Dyck, the Mayo neurologist, had some good news. He and Lachance diverged from the description of the disorder favored by the Department of Health and the CDC. All the doctors agreed that pig brains had triggered an autoimmune disorder. But MDH was calling it progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN), while the Mayo team rejected this name, because the doctors there didn't believe that the disorder was progressive. Now that QPP had halted harvesting pig brains, Dyck explained, Garcia's condition should improve.

Austin is home to an influx of migrants, seen worhipping at Queen of Angels Church.Austin is home to an influx of migrants, seen worshipping at Queen of Angels Church.But Garcia struggled to return to work for the better part of 2008. By fall, he still had burning in his feet, his knees clicked when he walked, and his bowel and bladder problems persisted. In November, Lachance found a "suspicious spot" on a nerve at the base of Garcia's brain and would eventually diagnose it as a nerve-sheath tumor.

Still, on December 5, Garcia passed a series of tests administered by doctors at the Austin Medical Center to see if he could return to work. But Lachance, who had the final say, was concerned. Garcia had quit sweating in his extremities, a clear indication of nerve death—permanent damage. Lachance emphasized in a letter to social worker Roxanne Tarrant that Garcia should only be asked to do sedentary work as he "has some mild degree of residual gait difficulty associated with spasticity, which would affect his efficiency of walking and fatigue levels."

Garcia met with Carole Bower to discuss reassignment. He was taken to his new station, mere feet from the old brain station. Seeing the blood on the floor and the hog parts sliding by on the conveyor, Garcia started to panic. He was afraid that he would again be exposed, that his condition would worsen. He couldn't catch his breath; his chest tightened. He begged to leave and called Tarrant. She secured him a different job, away from the head table.

QPP doesn't have the "special worker" program for disabled employees that Hormel has. Garcia was assigned to a job in the "box room," where cardboard shipping containers are prepared. It worked out okay at first, though Garcia often had to lift more than the 10 pounds that doctors had indicated should be his limit. But then QPP reassigned another box-room worker, and Garcia's workload increased. Tarrant complained to nurse Bower, to no avail.

Even after his diagnosis, Emiliano Ballesta was reluctant to transfer to another place on the factory line. His job, removing sinewy cheek meat from the tight nooks of the skull (a job known as "chiseling"), requires more handwork than most tasks at the head table. In the era of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, workers used an actual chisel to pry open and dislocate hogs' jaws, then hacked away muscles from the cheeks and temples. But today most factories use a mechanized jaw-puller for the brute work, and workers make precise cuts with a straight blade, honed to razor sharpness and handled with a chainmail glove. The skill required made Ballesta's job one of the most prestigious and—at $13.15 per hour following a raise—highest-paying positions at the head table.

In the kitchen of his rented apartment in a house on the east side of the Cedar River, Ballesta turned the blade of a butcher knife over, checking both sides.

"You have to be sure there are no dents in the blade," he said, as one of his sons translated. "Then you sharpen it against the steel rod."

He slid the blade out and back along the sharpening steel in a fluid motion that made the knife hum and sing. During the early days of the new plant, veteran workers complained repeatedly about the introduction of mechanical knife sharpeners, replacing personal stones and steels used to hone and feather their knives. They insisted that the mechanical sharpeners never gave knives a proper edge, leading to more strain while cutting and eventually to carpal tunnel syndrome. Some, like Ballesta, continued to use their own sharpeners.

"The skin of a hog is very thick and the blade would wear out quickly. I had to keep sharpening it all day."

Austin is home to small-town Americana.Austin is home to small-town Americana.

Everything about him was commanding—from his trimmed mustache to his iron-gray temples. Once, I spotted him among the crowd of congregants arriving for Mass at Queen of Angels, his bright-red Western shirt pressed and perfectly creased, the sleeves buttoned to conceal the circular scar of a Whizard knife slash on his left forearm. Even on the day of that injury, he had gotten patched up at the Austin Medical Center and returned to finish his shift. It must have been nearly impossible to accept that something invisible—something he referred to always as "the infection"—had robbed him of sensation and fine motor function, turning what had been surgical skill into a fumbling hazard.

After his diagnosis, Ballesta tried other jobs: weighing and packing parts, running the circular saw that clips off snouts. He even tried a less-skilled job trimming head meat with the Whizard. But by March 2009, the tingling in his right hand had grown worse and left his middle finger completely numb. Ballesta was given lighter duty washing ears, then taken off the line altogether to work in the box room alongside Matthew Garcia. By May, Ballesta was back to chiseling, but his need for breaks jeopardized his ability to hang on to the job. Under his contract, he had to bid for the job—and the position was increasingly coveted by other workers.

Bower sent an email to Lachance about Ballesta. "Rather difficult," she began. "He really likes the chiseling job and does not want off of it." She explained that Ballesta had asked to return to chiseling full-time. But Lachance believed he would still need 15-minute breaks every two hours, something that Bower doubted could continue to be accommodated. Still, she wrote that Ballesta "is a very good and ethical man so wants to work hard and please his employer. Can we see how it goes for awhile?"

Of the 13 workers who had workers' comp claims, six had been fired for working under forged or stolen identities. Ballesta was next.

In July, Bower told social worker Roxanne Tarrant that QPP had been reviewing the job lineup sheets for the workers with PIN, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage their required accommodations. She asked Tarrant if Ballesta could possibly chisel cheek meat without taking breaks. Ballesta balked. He said that he still had terrible burning in his feet if he stood too long; he just couldn't do it. On October 1, Ballesta finally gave in and requested to be put on cutting and cleaning intestines—despite a 20-cent-per-hour pay cut. He was dismayed but joked to coworkers that, after years at the head table, he would finally graduate to another station. That Saturday, October 3, would be his 15th anniversary at QPP. He called it his quinceañera, his coming of age.

But that Saturday, when he arrived at work, Ballesta was summoned to human resources. It was his last day at QPP.

Six months later, in April 2010, Matthew Garcia, too, was called in to talk to Dale Wicks in human resources. Wicks said that a man had been arrested in Texas; his name was Matthew J. Garcia—and he had the same date of birth and Social Security number as this Matthew J. Garcia. Wicks asked if his papers were his own. By now, workers—who had formed a support group that met weekly at Centro Campesino—had learned not to confess the way Miriam Angeles did, the way Emiliano Ballesta did. Of the 13 workers who had workers' comp claims, six had been fired for working under forged or stolen identities.

"I told them, yeah, they're my papers," Garcia said. "I have my ID, I have everything."

During his illness, Garcia had enrolled in classes at Riverland Community College, and his English was now good enough to get him by without an interpreter; he was not as frightened as other workers had been. Wicks warned that law enforcement was investigating, that they had already found records of Garcia's information being used in five other states. Garcia insisted he didn't know anything about that, that those people must have somehow stolen his information.

Garcia wasn't fired—but in June 2010, his condition suddenly worsened. A new round of tests convinced Lachance that his condition was likely now chronic. "I think his symptoms will be long term," Lachance wrote to Carole Bower, urging QPP to find a place for Garcia to perform light work—perhaps even a job in the office. "Hopefully some day his pain syndrome will gradually remit and his tolerance for physical activity improve but for the foreseeable future, especially concerning work-related activities, I think it is reasonable to assign some permanency here."

Tarrant told me that she understood the difficulty that QPP faced in finding light-labor positions for the injured workers. "It's a slaughterhouse," she said. "There really are no light jobs." Still, she was dubious of the claim that Immigration and Customs Enforcement just happened to be investigating so many affected workers whose doctors had recommended lighter duty. (Indeed, it's not clear ICE did.) "When the first firing happened, I thought it was interesting," Tarrant said. "When the second, then the third happened, I thought it was fishy."

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