The Primex plant waited 16 days before shutting down for only five days. Employees still feel unsafe after 112 workers and family members, including a baby, have been sickened.
Remigio Ramirez, who is in charge of machinery maintenance at a pistachio processing plant, repeatedly tried to tell his supervisors that he was sick. But they wouldn’t let him go home or take time off to be tested for the coronavirus.
“I started feeling sick like three days before (the diagnosis) and I asked my supervisor to let me go home and he said there was a lot of work and not enough employees,” Ramirez said. “Then I made an appointment to go to the doctor, asked permission again, but by the time I was let off work, the clinic was closed.”
Ramirez, 54, has worked at the Primex Farms plant, located in Wasco in the San Joaquin Valley, for more than 12 years. The company, which processes more than 60 million pounds a year of nuts, has about 400 year-round packing plant workers, many of whom earn minimum wage.
Despite dozens of infections like Ramirez’s, the Primex plant did not shut down until last week, on June 26. That was ten days after Ramirez said he tested positive with the coronavirus. And 16 days after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed at Primex.
The plant reopened with limited operations on Wednesday after voluntarily shutting down for five days, employees said. But as they return to work, the workers said they are still worried and do not feel safe.
As of Wednesday, 78 workers at the Primex plant — about one-fifth of its year-round staff — have been infected with COVID-19, along with 34 family members, including children, according to the labor union United Farm Workers. The youngest is just nine months old.
“We spoke to the workers and told them to share with us their (COVID) results,” said Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer of United Farm Workers, which is helping the workers even though they are not unionized. “The numbers are quickly changing by the hour. They send us texts and/or photos of their results.”
Primex did not respond to repeated requests to answer questions about the outbreak or the precautions it is now taking. However, its spokeswoman sent a statement Monday saying that its processing facility is part of the food production and distribution system identified as critical infrastructure during the pandemic.
“What that means is that it’s our job, and our responsibility, to continue to produce safe and wholesome products for our customers while doing everything within our power to protect the health and well-being of our employees and of the communities in which we live and work,” said Primex spokeswoman Mogjan Amin.
The company reopened Wednesday with a limited number of workers and hours. It is expected to reopen with full operations on Monday.
Analyst Gaspar Rivera-Salgado of the UCLA Labor Center said farmworkers and packing plant workers are often left unprotected and vulnerable to the virus.
“The farmworkers were declared essential but the state never placed specific health protocols since everything had to be done by the employers,” Rivera-Salgado said. “There is an estimate that 65% to 80% of farmworkers are immigrants and many are afraid of speaking up.”
Rivera-Salgado said that cramped living conditions also are a problem when a worker arrives home and unknowingly infects family members.
“They are essential workers but for companies they are not worth it more than the production,” he said.
Seeking safe working conditions
Workers said in a virtual press conference Monday that the company failed to give them protective gear and didn’t follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Initially, the company sold the workers masks for $8 a piece, they said.
The workers said those who got infected were advised to keep it confidential, and if they requested time off to be quarantined, they were told to resign instead.
Some workers said the company never told them about the infections. They said they learned from other workers and media reports.
Now the workers are demanding social distancing, payment of wages during shutdowns, thorough and daily sanitation of facilities, COVID-19 testing of all current and new employees and free protective equipment.
United Farm Workers representatives said the company is now testing workers at the plant. The company agreed that workers 65 and over can stay home if they are afraid to go back to work and they’ll get paid, and that workers, regardless of age, who test positive for COVID-19 can stay home and get paid. However, workers still don’t know if they’ll be paid for the days that the company was closed.
Primex confirmed in its statement that “unfortunately a number of employees” tested positive for the virus.
“In response we have temporarily suspended our operations and instituted a rigorous testing program, along with a number of other protective measures,” Amin said. “Employees who test positive or who exhibit any covid-related systems will be directed to stay home, on sick leave with full pay.” He did not offer any details about the protective measures.
Primex said it conducted a deep cleaning of the plant. But workers said the company merely conducted its regularly scheduled in-house fumigation against pests, a normal monthly practice. “That falls far short of a complete disinfection of all facilities against coronavirus by a specialized outside firm,” according to United Farm Workers.
Whole family is sick, too
Ramirez said his symptoms initially were similar to a common cold, but then his body started feeling hot while his feet were extremely cold.
“That day it was my wife’s birthday. I didn’t feel well so when I arrived from work I just walked directly to my room,” said Ramirez. “The next day when I woke up I saw my wife and my daughters very sick, too.”
Ramirez’ wife told him to get tested for COVID-19. When he called the Kern County number he was told there were no immediate tests available.
“I didn’t have time to wait so I went to a local clinic and paid like $200 to get the test,” he said.
Ramirez said his wife and daughters, 21 and 12, all tested positive, too.
“Never in my life I thought I would be getting coronavirus,” said Ramirez. “Since then I have tried to be strong for my family. They worry a lot about me but I try to get up every day and have a normal life.”
This is the first time in 12 years that he has been home so much. He had been working seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Ramirez has made $21 per hour for the past nine months, and before that, he earned minimum wage for about 12 years.
Ramirez plans to return to the plant next week but he doesn’t know if he’ll get paid for the two weeks of missed work. He’s not even sure if he will get his job back. No one from the company has talked to him since he told them he tested positive.
His supervisors were upset when he got sick.
“There are only two of us (employees) that have a lot of experience with the machinery,” he said. “The supervisors were mad because of work, not because of my health.”
Jacqueline García is a reporter with La Opinión in Los Angeles. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.