In summary

Feeling unsafe after a COVID-19 outbreak, employees of the Primex pistachio plant are calling for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate the company.

Dozens of workers in the San Joaquin Valley who recently protested against unsafe labor conditions in the company Primex Farms are calling for an investigation from the California Attorney General.

They demand to be protected during the coronavirus pandemic.

There are nearly a hundred workers infected by COVID-19 and an employee of the pistachio production company died last week.

Remigio Ramirez, a maintenance worker, who spoke about his COVID-19 infection and his working conditions at Primex with the media, said he is receiving retaliation.

Ramirez said the company’s supervisors told him starting next month he will work night shifts after working day shifts for 13 years.

Because of all these irregularities, workers and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union are calling for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate the company.

They also filed an unfair labor practice charge against Primex for unlawful retaliation with the National Labor Relations Board and are investigating reported violations of the rights of other workers.

More concerns at work

According to an UFW employee census, there are 97 coronavirus-infected employees and 63 family members including a 9-month-old baby. Primex provides year-round employment for 400 workers.

The UFW reported that Maria Hortencia Lopez, 57, a Primex Farms employee, died on July 14 after struggling for several weeks against COVID-19. Lopez had other underlying illnesses that aggravated her situation.

Irma Escobedo, another Primex employee who is hired through an agency, said she knew Lopez.

“There they tell us that the mask is optional.”

irma escobedo, primex employee

“The last time I saw her, it was from a distance and she was without a mask, she only covered her face with her blouse,” said Escobedo. “She seemed lost in her thoughts and by our 6 pm break they said she had gone home because she felt sick.”

Lopez stopped working at Primex on June 6, according to the company.

Escobedo, 54, said supervisors don’t protect employees enough.

“Another person in our work room also tested positive but continued working while waiting for the results,” said Escobedo. “There they tell us that the mask is optional”.

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She recalls it was about mid-June when she also got infected.

“On Sunday [June 14] I went to the clinic with symptoms and they told me to stay home. On Monday my son checked my temperature and it was very high and he took me to the hospital,” said Escobedo. “There I tested positive for the coronavirus and I had to stay for three days.”

After those three days she was sent home to continue recovering. She was forced to tell one of her three adult children and her pregnant daughter-in-law to leave the house temporarily to prevent infecting them.

“I went through a lot of bad things while recuperating and Primex never called me to see how I was doing,” said the worker.

She added that what is more upsetting is that supervisors never gave workers information on what steps to take for a safe environment at work.

She explained that in her workroom there are around 20 people.

Some workrooms are similar in size or slightly larger. Usually for breaks they let two crews go out at the time.

“Now that we have more knowledge of the virus we understand it was wrong how we were taking our breaks,” said Escobedo. “We all went together to wash our hands. In the dining room there was enough space but not in the sinks.”

Looking for answers

Armando Elenes, treasurer secretary of the UFW said that they are now requesting the help of prosecutor Becerra to investigate several irregularities in Primex.

“Lopez’s husband directly confirmed to me that she tested positive for COVID-19 and that caused her pneumonia,” said Elenes.

Primex chief operating officer Mojgan M. Amin said there has been “confusion” and “disinformation” regarding Lopez’s death because despite working at the company, she was not a Primex employee, but a contractor supplied by a third-party labor contractor.

“The reports of workplace transmission, including at agricultural employers like Primex, are deeply disturbing.”

california attorney general xavier becerra

“She was sick due to pneumonia and was tested three times for COVID-19 while she was hospitalized and her result was negative all three times,” said Amin. “She had been off work since June 6, 2020 and we learned from her family that she passed away on July 14, 2020 from pneumonia.”  

In regards to Ramirez’ sanction Amin said that “we are professionals, we do not retaliate.”

And he denied the accusations of some workers who say Primex is not paying them sick time.

“We are professionals and we care about our employees, it is the law to pay 80 hours of sick for COVID,” said Amin. “We also have our own additional paid sick and time off.  We also provide the opportunity to telecommute for people who have health issues or do not have child care for these hard times.”

Becerra said via email that the fight for public safety, workers’ rights and economic equity has never been as critical as it is now during the times of the pandemic.

“The reports of workplace transmission, including at agricultural employers like Primex, are deeply disturbing,” said Becerra. “While we cannot comment on any particular investigation, workers and their families should know that they are not alone in this fight. We are closely tracking the market and expect employers in our state to fully comply with their responsibilities and obligations to provide for worker health and safety.”

Workers who feel at risk on the job can file a complaint with the Attorney Becerra’s office at https://oag.ca.gov/consumers/COVID- 19

Also, the California Workforce and Development Agency at https://www.labor.ca.gov/coronavirus2019/

Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter with La Opinión. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Jacqueline Garcia

Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. She is based at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles, where she has covered issues ranging...