In Yakima County in Washington state, where a mutant coronavirus is fueling a deadly fourth wave, Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson has just relaxed COVID-19 protections for farmworkers.
Key to Judge Gibson’s April 21 decision is disallowing access to farms by community workers. This decision was hailed by Vegetable Growers News, which claimed that “elected officials” and “labor organizers” were “risking farm worker safety.”
Thanks to David Bacon for reporting on this story in his aptly-named Capital & Main article, Guest Worker COVID Protections Abandoned – A Taste of Things to Come:
“COVID-19 outbreaks struck Washington’s guest worker barracks in April , starting with 36 laborers in a Stemilt Growers housing unit in East Wenatchee. Within months eight other clusters were found, and by mid-May rural Yakima County had 2,186 cases – 122 were reported on May 15 alone – and 73 people were dead…
“Then Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon, a Mexican H2-A worker, died in a Gebbers Farms barracks in July… State health authorities only found out about Santiago’s death from anonymous phone calls from workers… According to workers, the company sent farmworkers into the orchards even when they showed symptoms of illness. ‘You could hear people coughing everywhere.’”
Yes, Judge Gibson, there clearly is no reason for any intervention from those pesky “elected officials” and “labor organizers.”
NEW REPORT ON LOW-WAGE WORKERS AND COVID-19
Closer to home for those of us in the San Francisco Bay Area, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus released a report late last month, in collaboration with the UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program, focusing on the criminal (that’s my word, not theirs) neglect regarding COVID-19 protocols by employers of low-wage workers in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
For example, the report told the story of “Sophia,” a Spanish-speaking worker at an unnamed fast food chain in Los Angeles, where seventeen workers have had COVID-19:
“Her employer didn’t want workers to say they got sick at work, telling them: ‘Nobody got sick here… Be quiet and don’t tell anyone…’ Sophia became sick with COVID-19 in November 2020, along with eight members of her family, including her husband, daughter, and grandchildren.”
Another story from the report:
“Liu… is a Chinese-speaking janitor who worked at a private school in San Francisco… When his co-worker Jenny… was exposed to COVID-19 through her husband, their manager told Liu and Jenny not to tell anyone at the school… Liu quarantined himself for five [unpaid] days… When he returned to work, Liu’s manager was verbally aggressive and cut Liu’s hours… Liu reported the retaliation to a government agency but the employer faced no consequences.”
And another story:
“Roberta worked at a Los Angeles fast food restaurant where workers had to ‘beg for masks.’ Workers were eventually given disposable masks and gloves and told to re-use them for several days… When several workers at the restaurant tested positive for COVID-19, the management hid the cases from workers, claimed the workers were out because they were in Mexico, and did not tell exposed workers to quarantine… Roberta discovered she had worked in close contact with an infected co-worker… Roberta made a video saying her company was not ensuring distancing or providing masks. Her store manager told her, ‘You have no right to say anything’ and retaliated by cutting her hours… Roberta eventually got fired…”
The pattern here is clear. Bosses lie, workers suffer and die.
This report got some coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle in an April 21 article by Carolyn Said: “People who make take-out meals, provide home health care, tend to yards and clean schools, homes and hospitals reported a range of unsafe practices.”
Said’s article told the story of Aracely Nava, a single mom who works at the McDonald’s at Market and 2nd Streets. Nava says that she got COVID-19, probably from a sick manager. She was told by another manager to tell the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) that she got the coronavirus riding BART, which she did out of fear of retaliation.
Nevertheless, a COVID-19 cluster at the McDonald’s could not be hidden, prompting a visit to the store by SFDPH on January 14. The result was a clean bill of health. “All the necessary protocols and safety plans were on site,” according to SFDPH spokesperson Veronica Vien.
Ms. Vein, meet Judge Gibson. I think you would get along well.
I recently made a public records request to SFDPH for any written documents between the City, the Giants and the Warriors regarding reopening protocols at Oracle Park and Chase Stadium, where I am employed. I got an answer from the same Ms. Vein:
“[T]his request will take a great deal of time to process and involve use of scarce public resources. Therefore, we request that you more narrowly tailor your request so we can identify and produce responsive documents with minimum staff time.”
So far, I have not received a single document.
BIDEN ADMINISTRATION ADVANCING WORKPLACE SAFETY RULES
Shortly after taking office in January, President Joe Biden gave the Labor Department until March 15 to get some mandatory workplace safety rules in place. Good idea, Joe. On April 26, over a month late, the Labor Department sent a set of draft rules to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The Labor Department has not provided anyone else with the draft rules.
When they get published, hopefully soon, it might be useful to look less at the rules themselves and more at the enforcement mechanisms.
NEW AB685 WORKPLACE DATA
On April 28 the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) published more workplace outbreak data on its website, in accordance with AB685 mandates. I have previously written about CDPH workplace data here, here and here.
CDPH added outbreak and case data collected for just one week, from April 6 through April 12. Outbreaks are defined as three or more cases of COVID-19 at a worksite within a 14-day period.
The new data showed, for that one week, 254 new workplace outbreaks and 3,518 new cases.
That is an average of 36 new workplace outbreaks and 502 new workplace cases, per day.
The new data for this one week includes:
Health care & social assistance
127 new outbreaks, 2,366 new cases
Skilled nursing facilities: 41 new outbreaks, 1,231 new cases
Residential care facilities: 57 new outbreaks, 921 new cases
Hospitals: 4 new outbreaks, 75 new cases
23 new outbreaks, 294 new cases
This includes one new outbreak and 95 new cases
at a household appliance manufacturing plant.
Elementary & secondary schools
18 new outbreaks, 77 new cases
Couriers & messengers
2 new outbreaks, 150 new cases
Assembly Bill 654, which would mandate public naming of workplaces with outbreaks – such as specific retail stores, manufacturing plants, residential care facilities and schools – was introduced in February but remains stuck in committee.
All of the CDPH data, of course, ultimately relies upon honest reporting from bosses and local public health officials. No problem there, right?
ILLINOIS WORKPLACE DATA
I recently linked onto a webpage put together by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) that documents COVID-19 cases by “Potential Exposure Location.”
The IDPH statisticians have compiled data collected through contact tracing “by asking cases to recall locations visited in the [last]14 days.” I know of no public data available like this in California, or in supposedly-progressive San Francisco.
What is fascinating about this data is that almost all of the “locations visited” are workplaces of one sort or another. Currently at the top of the list are “School” (22.2%), followed by “Business or Retail,” (9.6%), then “Restaurant/Bar” (8.7%). Then there is a catchall category of “Other.”
After that we find “Hospital or Clinic” (6.7%) , “Office Setting” (5.9%), “Factory” (5.1%) , and “Grocery Store” (3.6%).
Indeed, over 87% of all these locations are workplaces. Private homes and households constitute only 4.3% of the locations listed. The dreaded “Community Event/Mass Gathering” is only 0.25% of the locations listed.
IDPH cautions that this list “should be interpreted as locations where COVID-19 exposure may have occurred, not that these are definitive exposure or outbreak locations” and that “individual cases may have more than one location listed because an individual may have visited several locations during the 14-day exposure period.”
Still, exposure does not occur at places where people do not go. If the vast majority of the locations visited before an individual was infected with the coronavirus were workplaces, workplaces would seem to be the largest vector for the pandemic. This IDPH data comes directly from people infected with COVID-19, not from bosses and local public health officials.
Statistics don’t lie, even if bosses do.
This article is based on an article originally published by 48 Hills.