by Carolyn Bick
Every morning at 6 a.m., Penelope punches into work at a food processing warehouse in Eltopia, Washington. She works seven days a week with no days off for $13.65 an hour. With the exception of a 30-minute lunch break, Penelope is on her feet sorting spears of asparagus for up to nine or 10 hours a day. It’s difficult work in normal times. But now, it’s become dangerous.
Penelope says her employer is not providing her or other employees with enough personal protective equipment or allowing them any space to social distance to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. She is undocumented, so she’s afraid of repercussions if she speaks out or tries to involve the Department of Labor and Industries, which is responsible for overseeing safe workplace conditions. But she is also afraid that these conditions will get her killed: she’s 40 years old and suffers from diabetes and heart disease, and has breast cancer that has recently reemerged.
Penelope’s situation is not unique. Across Eastern Washington, organizations like the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN) have been receiving hundreds of calls from immigrant workers about agricultural workplace safety. These calls have come from documented and undocumented workers alike, all of whom have been afraid to speak publicly about their experiences, because they worry that their bosses will fire them or worse, call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for speaking out or showing any resistance. And though the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) has put out a fact sheet describing the requirements employers must adhere to, including providing protective equipment, as well as ensuring their workers are six feet apart at all times, L&I has not been actively enforcing these rules.
Speaking through a translator, Penelope described her warehouse’s current conditions. Nothing has changed, she said. Supervisors have reminded employees to wash their hands after lunch and after bathroom breaks, but that’s it, and it’s nothing they weren’t doing before. There are no new signs informing the workers about the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. Penelope’s employers haven’t told the workers anything else, and if she were to fall ill and rely on them for information about the virus and proper protocol, she would be largely in the dark.
As for personal protective gear, Penelope said workers are only given one pair of plastic gloves for the entire day, and they are being told to get their own face masks. When they were first brought to orientation, she said, they were told there would be social distancing measures in place. That has not happened. She said the only time they are told — and able — to social distance is when they punch in.
“What people are doing is just wearing bandanas, and there is no social distancing at all,” Penelope said. “[We are] about one foot apart. [I have] one person on each side, and then people in front of [me]. … They keep hiring more and more people, so it’s become impossible to have social distancing. So that’s been thrown out the window. … They are not keeping their word about social distancing.”
Penelope said the warehouse has just hired five new people, bumping up the total workforce to at least 65 people.
Maria is just a few years older than Penelope, and is not undocumented. The 43-year-old works six days per week for eight hours a day packing apples in a warehouse in Yakima, Washington, for $13.50 an hour. Speaking through an interpreter, she said the warehouse has not provided any of its employees with face masks or gloves, or any opportunity to safely social distance from other workers. In early April, she said, the warehouse had a fire drill. When the workers came back, they were told to group together to make attendance-taking easier for their supervisors. None of them had masks.
As in Penelope’s warehouse, Maria said there are no signs about the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 in the warehouse where she works. The only information the workers get about the virus is from each other, and by watching news reports. She said they haven’t been provided with resources or information about how to protect themselves.
Maria feels kept in the dark about everything related to the virus, including information about sick people in her own warehouse of more than 200 employees. In mid-April, she said, half the workers in a different area from where she works in the warehouse were sent home without explanation. It was only later that she learned an employee in that area had tested positive, and the company had decided to fumigate that part of the facility.
“They fumigated that part of the facility the next day, and within that next day, they allowed the workers to come back, so it wasn’t even shut down for one full business day the next day,” Maria said. “They essentially told the workers, ‘You can come back now and work, but for those of you that don’t feel safe to come back you don’t have to,’ but … they weren’t told anything about getting paid for taking the time off, so … most people just came back.”
This prompted some of Maria’s fellow workers to sign a petition asking for just a dollar more per hour, because they felt they were risking their lives just being there, but they couldn’t go without pay. They, like everyone else, have bills and rent to pay, and mouths to feed.
“They were told, essentially, that if you want to work there at the rate they were offering, then there is a job for them,” Maria said. “If they don’t, then they can just leave. There would be no raise.”
Penelope and Maria both said they worry about job security. Their jobs are in high demand, and they know there will be people to take their places, if they were to quit or lose their positions. They worry about their ability to get jobs anywhere else, given the current hiring and economic conditions. In Penelope’s case, it’s also because she pays for her own chemotherapy, on top of her usual rent, food, and utility bills. This is why neither woman has stopped working or spoken out, despite the risks. It’s also why some workers may be keeping quiet about being sick, Washington State Labor Council Union and Naturalization Organizer and former Yakima City Councilmember Dulce Gutierrez said. They just can’t afford to take any time off.
“We are talking about a highly impoverished labor force. They are workers, but they are amongst the lowest compensated, lowest paid workers, who have no benefits, medical coverage, don’t qualify for a stimulus paycheck [if undocumented],” Gutierrez said. “All of these factors just compound and exacerbate the whole problem at hand, and it’s that this [novel] coronavirus is deadly. And it can kill people, or make people go broke, or both.”
This creates something of a vicious cycle for these workers. On the one hand, they have to keep working to keep food on the table, despite the perilous conditions. But these families also often share homes with two or three other families, so the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus is increased several fold, WAISN’s Eastern Washington Network Director Brenda Rodriguez said. If someone in the household gets sick, then it’s likely all the families living in that household will all come down with the virus. If it’s bad enough that the families’ breadwinners can’t go to work, then suddenly that household of several families has no income, and no security. They are a paycheck away from homelessness, she said.
It also means they can’t provide for their families back in their countries of origin, she said. Rodriguez’s own grandmother lives in Mexico, and relies on the money Rodriguez’s parents send her every other week. She’s sick and in an age bracket that puts her at risk of dying from COVID-19. Without that paycheck, her grandmother would have to work and put herself at risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.
“Our communities have a lot of reasons why they have to go to work. It’s for our own survival, but also for the survival of our loved ones,” Rodriguez said.
Gutierrez thinks the Departments of Agriculture and Labor and Industries need to be proactive about the standards set out by L&I, and change the complaint system. The latter throws up even more barriers to equity and safety, she said, because a guaranteed inspection means complainants must identify themselves.
“Retaliation is a serious tool that is used against these people that are in this workforce. People are very reluctant and hesitant to coming forward and making claims under their identity,” Gutierrez said. “People know that it could be something as common as a termination or it could be as bad as calling ICE on you, if they know you are undocumented. That implies family separation and many other consequences that come with that.”
L&I’s Director of Communications Tim Church said that complainants do have the option to stay anonymous, but that their calls would be considered referrals. He said both referrals and complaints are treated similarly. The L&I webpage regarding safety complaints states that “Once L&I receives a report, we will review the information and determine the appropriate action. We will inform you of any action taken if we have your contact information.” It also says that L&I can investigate, in order to determine if workers have been discriminated against for speaking out against dangerous conditions.
Even though the L&I fact sheet sets out requirements for safe practices within warehouses, such as maintaining six feet of distance between employees at all times and increasing sanitization and cleaning of all surfaces, the department is not actively enforcing these requirements. Unless a worker files a complaint, L&I does not investigate or conduct routine inspections related to the novel coronavirus, Church said. The businesses essentially operate on the honor system, with the assumption that they have their workers’ best interests in mind.
“There are at least a couple hundred thousand businesses in Washington State, so it’s impossible for us to go to each one and proactively make sure they are following the rules,” Church said.
He said the L&I does do random general inspections “all the time in the state, on a variety of topics,” but did not know how often these random inspections were conducted in general or specifically with regards to agricultural warehouses. Church was also unable to find out how many times the department received and investigated referrals regarding concerns about the novel coronavirus from workers in agricultural warehouses in Eltopia, Washington, or Yakima, Washington, before deadline.
This lack of proactive targeted rule enforcement and the daunting complaint system leave workers like Penelope and Maria feeling more vulnerable than ever. Penelope said she doesn’t understand why she and her fellow workers are being treated this way. She thinks it’s because, at the end of the day, these employers don’t care about the wellbeing of their workers.
“All they care about is that the work gets done,” Penelope said. “That’s why when people get sick, they send them home, but they send them home without any compensation, because they don’t care what happens to that individual. All they care is that you can work.”
Author’s Note: Penelope and Maria are not the workers’ real names. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited the wage complaints section of the L&I website. This has been corrected to reflect the safety complaints section.
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.
Featured image: Workers pack apples in an apple-packing warehouse in Yakima, Washington, on March 24, 2020. Their faces have been blurred to protect their identities and the identity of the photo-taker.