Sunday, August 09, 2020

Expendable Employees

California exports $21bn in agricultural products each year.  Hundreds of thousands of workers wash the vegetables, debone the meat, sort the nuts and package the produce that finds its way into kitchens throughout the United States. When the coronavirus hit, their work was ruled essential, so they kept working in the often cramped facilities.

“We felt like they would tell us. They would take precautions. But they didn’t,” said Marielos Cisneros of her former employer, the nut producer Primex Farms, when the pandemic began. 

Roxana Alvarado, 30, worked at Primex Farms in Wasco up until a few weeks ago. When she tested positive for the virus in June, dozens of her coworkers had already been infected, according to the workers and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). At least 151 Primex workers have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the company – more than a third of the plant’s staff.  Before the outbreak, management offered no testing and told the workers they could bring masks from home if they wanted but that they weren’t mandatory. They made little effort to create social distancing. “In a typical day, an eight-hour shift, I can be in contact with 100 or more people, walking between people, going around the floor, chatting with people without masks,” said Alvarado.

When people stopped showing up for their shifts, management would say they were on vacation, Alvarado said. On 23 June, the company admitted that it had 31 confirmed cases – although UFW says the real number of infections around that time was closer to 76. By then, Alvarado had brought the virus home to Bakersfield, where she lived with her husband and two children. Her five-month-old baby tested positive.

“They took away my right to choose whether to expose my family and myself to Covid when they didn’t inform us what was going on,” Alvarado said. “If I had known there was Covid, I would have made the difficult decision to not go to work because I never would have put my family at risk.”

Marielos Cisneros, 40, had worked as a sorter and then a production clerk for Primex for almost three years when she contracted a fever and went to the hospital on 10 June. She made sure human resources knew. “When I told them that I was positive, the HR lady told me not to tell anyone,” she said. “She told me to say I had a headache, that I had anything else but Covid.” All four of her children got coronavirus, including a son with asthma.  As a single mother dependent on one paycheck, she said she would have gone to work regardless, but she would have taken more precautions had she known how prevalent the virus was at the facility.

About 60 miles north in Kings county, another outbreak swept through Central Valley Meat Co, a slaughterhouse and beef-packaging plant. Attorneys representing workers in a class-action lawsuit against the company assert that the virus arrived at the facility in Hanford in April, eventually spreading to about 200 workers. At one point, in early May, Kings county reported that it had 158 coronavirus cases while Central Valley Meat Co reported internally that it had 161 cases, according to the lawsuit – more than 100% of the county’s total cases. “It is beyond peradventure that Central Valley Meat is responsible for the significant increase in COVID-19 cases in Kings county.” The company did not put in place good social distancing guidelines, hand sanitizing stations or offer face masks until an outbreak was in full swing, according to workers who kept working despite displaying symptoms because they were afraid to lose their jobs if they stopped. Other coworkers stopped coming into work because they were scared of getting infected, he said – enough that in May and June, the company paid workers a bonus to risk their health and come to work.

While the rest of California sheltered at home, they took their places at the production lines and sorting tables, against all social distancing guidelines, as their companies made excuses for why co-worker after co-worker stopped showing up for their shifts. Some workers said they had to learn from news reports that they had been exposed to Covid-19. Others said they felt obligated to work even when showing virus symptoms.

 In 10 counties, state authorities list workplaces and businesses as likely drivers for increased transmission. In at least two more counties, outbreaks in several food processing facilities have led to hundreds of infections. Many returned to their homes in cities across the region, unknowingly exposing their parents, their spouses, their children, aunts, uncles and cousins to the virus.

Workers and workers’ rights organizations say these outbreaks point to a devastating truth: that we are each only as protected as our least protected; as vulnerable as our most vulnerable.

“You can appear to contain the spread among middle-class workers but when it reaches those workers who are furthest on the margins, who are most disadvantaged, the virus is going to spread,” said Edward Flores, a sociology professor at the University of California, Merced.

From the beginning of the pandemic, advocacy groups expressed concern for the safety of essential food workers. Much of this work does not allow for social distancing, with workers squeezing next to each other in fields and crowding together at the plants. Many who do the low-wage labor that keeps these industries afloat are Latinx and do not speak English, making it difficult for them to communicate with their employers and understand their rights. Some are undocumented, with the fear of deportation preventing them from coming forward with any grievances.

 Central Valley runs 450 miles down the center of California, much of it flat fields, lush fruit trees and vibrant orchards. The region contains the largest concentration of dairies in the state, as well as a number of meat-processing centers, together with the farms forming an agricultural juggernaut. In the San Joaquin Valley alone – the southern bulk of the region – more than 173,000 work in agriculture, with 45,000 more in food manufacturing, 60,600 more in grocery retail and 86,000 in transportation and warehousing, according to UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center. In the eight counties of the San Joaquin Valley, a 27,000-square-mile area of 4.3 million residents, coronavirus cases are at 1,900 per 100,000 residents. In comparison, the San Francisco Bay Area, with 7.7 million residents in 7,000 square miles, has 770 cases per 100,000 residents.

More than 21% of workers in the region live below the poverty line and 17.9% are dependent on food stamps, according to the researchers. The region’s immigrants have the lowest rate of naturalization in the state. Most workers don’t qualify for federally guaranteed emergency leave, and if they are undocumented, they do not qualify for unemployment. From these tenuous circumstances, they go on to live in households that rank as the largest in the state.

Primex employees went on strike on 25 June and 6 July to demand the company adhere to federal law that requires employers like Primex to provide paid leave for specified reasons related to Covid-19 for up to 80 hours. Workers at the company struggled to get their full 80 hours paid, workers and UFW said. Cisneros said Primex told her it counted as vacation time. After the strike, workers received their 80 hours, but then Primex laid off 40 employees, including, according to workers, Alvarado and some of the most outspoken when it came to the virus. Primex said the cuts were necessary because of production needs. Soon afterwards, it began hiring new workers.

“To them, we’re just workers,” Cisneros said. “They replace us really fast. They don’t think of us outside of production.”

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