[News] 'Everyone tested positive': Covid devastates agriculture workers in California's heartland

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sat Aug 8 12:50:58 EDT 2020

tested positive': Covid devastates agriculture workers in California's
Vivian Ho - August 8, 2020

Across California’s Central Valley, 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 that fuel a state industry that
exports $21bn
agricultural products each year.

Workers told the Guardian that in the past months, as much 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 coworker after coworker 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.

Then they returned to their homes in cities across the region, unknowingly
exposing their parents, their spouses, their children, aunts, uncles and
cousins to the virus.

“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. “In a sense, we felt secure.”

Now the virus is surging in the Central Valley, with several reported
deaths among essential workers. 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.

Workers and workers’ rights organizations say these outbreaks and the
subsequent swell of infections in the Central Valley 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.
*Fears for hundreds of thousands of workers*

The 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.
[image: California’s Central Valley.]
California’s Central Valley. Photograph: Wikimedia/Thadius856

>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.

Still, over the past five years, the federal and state occupational safety
and health division has received more complaints out of the Central Valley
and inspected more accidents in this region than anywhere else in the
state, according to Ana Padilla, executive director of UC Merced’s
Community and Labor Center. The San Joaquin Valley has 13% of the state’s
meat-processing centers, but has received 49% of the state’s inspections,
Padilla said.

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. UFW, which is keeping
a census of infected workers, said the first confirmed infected worker,
whom the company has blamed for bringing the virus into the facility from
abroad and fired, last worked on 20 May.

Workers told the Guardian management held a meeting when the pandemic first
took off, warning them not to travel or put themselves at higher risk for
infection, but gave out little other information. Before the outbreak, they
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.

Alvarado had worked at Primex for almost two years, cleaning both the
facility and the produce. 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

“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.”
*A marginalized workforce*

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.” Primex denies the allegation.
[image: Marielos Cisneros with her family.]
Marielos Cisneros with her family. Photograph: Courtesy Marielos Cisneros

All four of her children got coronavirus, including a son with asthma,
Cisneros said. 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.

Flores and Padilla, the researchers at UC Merced, authored a study
looking into the connection between low-wage work and the spread of
Covid-19. They found that most counties in California with high worker
distress were on the state’s coronavirus watchlist, including much of the
Central Valley.

The disadvantages of this region and its workforce put them at higher risk
not just for exposure to the virus, but also for unsanitary and unsafe work
conditions with little freedom to advocate for themselves, Padilla said.
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.

“One lady told me that she got infected, went home and unfortunately her
entire family of 16 others was there,” said Armando Elenes, UFW’s
secretary-treasurer. “I’m talking her husband, her sons, her son’s wife,
their kids. It went from her to 16 others.”

So far, 49 adult family members of the workers at the Primex plant and 34
children have tested positive, Elenes said.

Jesse Rojas, a Primex spokesman, said the allegations by workers and UFW
were “false” and “hearsay”.
[image: Workers pack orders for face shields at Mask & Shield, a division
of Monster City Studios, in Fresno, California, in May.]
Workers pack orders for face shields at Mask & Shield, a division of
Monster City Studios, in Fresno, California, in May. Photograph:
Bloomberg/Getty Images

“The overwhelming majority of current and actual Primex employees are upset
over UFW’s lies and feel entirely safe going to work, as the company has
gone above and beyond to ensure their safety,” he said. He added that
Primex “has been adhering to and following guidelines and recommendations
by each institution at every level from the very beginning of the
pandemic”, but he declined to provide details of what those guidelines were
and the dates that the company put them in place.
*‘Everyone has tested positive’*

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 lawsuit states.

Central Valley Meat Co did not return repeated requests for comment.

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 and the lawsuit. Now, so many of the workers
have gotten coronavirus that they’ve given up on following any guidelines,
said a former deboner who asked to only be identified as Martin out of fear
of losing his job. “It’s almost like the virus has passed because everyone
has tested positive,” he said.

The first person infected stopped coming to work in April, and when workers
asked why, management told them he had an earache, Martin, 31, said. It
wasn’t until that person’s brother, who lived with him and also worked at
the plant, tested positive and told their coworkers that they realized
coronavirus had arrived.

When Maria Pilar Ornelas, the lawsuit’s main plaintiff, began struggling to
breathe at work on 23 April, she asked management if she could get tested,
according to the lawsuit. They told her testing was only offered to
employees “chosen by the company”, the suit said, and told her she had to
finish her shift, even though she had a headache so severe that her vision
became blurry. She soon developed a fever of 103.7.

Ornelas eventually paid $225 for a test because the company does not
provide health insurance, the lawsuit said. By then, she had unknowingly
spread the virus to her boyfriend.

Martin, who has worked for the company for six years, tested positive in
late April, along with another relative who lived with him. While Martin’s
wife and two children did not display symptoms during their 14-day
quarantine, the wife and child of Martin’s relative tested positive.
[image: A farm worker repairs irrigation pipes during spring planting in
the Central Valley in Davis, California, in 2017.]
A farm worker repairs irrigation pipes during spring planting in the
Central Valley in Davis, California, in 2017. Photograph: Hyungwon

Martin said some of his coworkers 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.

“I felt like I was being bought out,” Martin said. “It felt like they were
trying to buy my life for an extra $100 a week.”
*A strike and state action*

Last month, California officials indicated that combating the spread in the
Central Valley must be a priority. The governor, Gavin Newsom, announced
that he was dedicating $52m to expand contact tracing, quarantine efforts
and investigations in eight counties.

Newsom has been upfront that coronavirus has harmed parts of California’s
population and economy in disproportionate ways. In particular, the Latinx
community and low-wage essential labor workforce have borne the brunt of
the burden, with the recent rise in cases in the Central Valley making the
differences strikingly clear.

Padilla and Flores of UC Merced say that only more stringent policies and
enforcement around workplace conditions will curb the crisis. Workplace
safety and health concerns existed before Covid-19, they argue. Now, with
the threat of a virus all around, the risks are potentially fatal.

Maria Hortencia Lopez, a 57-year-old Primex employee, died of Covid on 14
July. Another worker who tested positive was taken off life support last
month and is not expected to survive. Pedro Zuniga, a 52-year-old produce
handler at a Safeway distribution center in Tracy, died weeks after
coworkers began displaying symptoms at the center. Management told the sick
employees that they had to keep working, according to a lawsuit filed by
Zuniga’s widow. Fifty-one workers eventually tested positive.

Teena Massingill, a spokeswoman for Albertsons Companies, which owns
Safeway, said the state occupational safety and health division inspected
the Tracy distribution center on 15 April – two days after Zuniga’s death –
“and no violations were found”. “Prior to Mr. Zuniga falling ill, the
Company had instituted enhanced cleaning practices and social distancing
protocols at the facility, and was implementing health screening and
temperature checks,” she said.

At 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

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. Rojas, the Primex spokesperson, said the company “has always paid
the state COVID-19 80-hour sick pay” and that “the company has never
retaliated against any employee”. He added: “All of the changes in
personnel are typical changes during the season.”

Marielos Cisneros felt that she was being bullied by management after she
participated in the strike. She also still didn’t feel safe in the
facility, so she quit a week ago.

She knows that the work they do is essential. She only wishes they were
treated as such.

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

*Kari Paul contributed reporting*
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