COVID-19 in the workplace: “When one worker gets it, so does the family”

Six food-processing workers from Green Bay told their harrowing COVID-19 stories Thursday in a press conference organized by Voces de la Frontera.

A typical story was told by Filiberto Reyes Martinez, who worked at American Foods until April 22, when he was fired for challenging managers about unsafe working conditions.

Voces, Wisconsin’s largest immigration rights organization, is pressing claims on his behalf with OSHA and the National Labor Relations Board. He was a whistleblower who was acting in concert with other workers and should have been protected on both accounts.

“We heard people were sick but we weren’t informed. Less people were coming to work,” Reyes said.

“They gave us only a mask and a gown for protection. But the line was moving so fast we were sweating heavily, our masks were slipping and wouldn’t stick to our faces. Sweat was dropping onto the meat.”

“Two of us asked to be able to change coats and masks during breaks,” he continued, but nothing happened.

The next day, April 22, he went with another worker to the general manager and told him there weren’t enough workers to handle the work safely. He told us: “If you don’t like it, there’s a door and you can leave.”

Later that day, “I was called back to his office and told to leave the plant. I was told I’d get a call telling me whether I was fired or laid off. One week later and no one has contacted me,” he said.

“We must raise the consciousness among workers not to be afraid to speak up,” Reyes said. “We have value as human beings and should not be humiliated.”

The other workers told similar stories about complaining regarding unsafe conditions and being ignored.

Eugenio Jimenez and his wife worked at Echo Lake Foods. Both are positive for COVID-19. “My wife came home from work crying,” he said. “They had no masks, no goggles, no one taking temperatures. They knew there were cases but they did nothing different.”

Salomon Mata also works at Echo Lake. “No safe distance, no masks,” he said. “They’ve not been following guidelines. We asked for a two-week shutdown to disinfect the plant. The company said to keep working under the same conditions.”

Workers who got sick stopped coming to work so the company hired temporary replacements, Mata said. “Without masks. There was no effort by the company on safety.”

“I have COVID. Now I’m in isolation at home with my wife and children. We’re afraid for ourselves and afraid for our families.”

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Voces Executive Director, said that the failure of companies to follow public-health guidelines “is nothing short of white-collar crime.”

She condemned Trump’s order to re-open meatpacking plants and protect companies from liability if they made a “good faith effort” to create safe conditions.

The struggle for healthy workplaces “must be led by essential workers themselves who need to raise their voices, unite with their co-workers and communities and elected officials, assert what rights they do have, and demand that these safety guidelines are implemented,” she said.

“Voces will continue to provide support to workers in this struggle and make the public aware of what is happening and ways to help.”