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 in 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.
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 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.”
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.
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”.
“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.
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 time.
Primex workers demand the company take action to protect them from COVID19 and treat them as the essential workers they are. / Trabajadores exigen que la compañía tome accion para protegerlos del COVID19 y que los traten como como los trabajadores esenciales que son.#WeFeedYou pic.twitter.com/6Byq7Iuatd— United Farm Workers (@UFWupdates) June 25, 2020
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