With continuous safety complaints and the increase in COVID-19 cases in Latino communities, Illinois Unidos urges industries to prioritize the health and safety of their workers and comply with federal and Illinois existing COVID-19 work safety rules and regulations
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers in food processing and manufacturing industries have faced the unfathomable decision between going to work and putting their health at risk, or staying home and putting their job and income at risk. Many of these workers face unsafe working conditions, intimidation from their employers, and no sick benefits, preventing them from making a safe choice for themselves and their families.
Illinois Unidos (formerly the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative) calls on these industries to reevaluate the treatment of their workers and to follow all state and federal health and safety workplace guidelines. Illinois Unidos asks government officials to use their oversight power to ensure workers in these industries are protected, safe and empowered to keep themselves, their families, and their communities healthy without retribution from their employer.
“Essential doesn’t mean expendable, but that’s how corporate giants have consistently treated working people throughout the coronavirus pandemic,” said Congressman Jesús G. “Chuy” García. “Workers are facing the double burden of doing their jobs in uncertain times while fighting for labor rights and protections. We need safer working conditions, especially in industries where Latinos are disproportionately endangered, like manufacturing and food processing.”
“No one should have to risk their life or their loved ones to put food on the table or pay their rent, but during COVID-19, many in my district are doing just that. This is not the time for CEOs or board members to be getting richer. Instead, they need to prioritize the health and safety of our workers, pay them fairly, give them proper protection on the job, and allow workers to negotiate without the threat of being fired for demanding safe conditions,” said Congressman García.
Latinos make up a significant proportion of the food processing workforce in Illinois, Recent data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts Illinois in the top 6 states in total number of COVID-19 cases among workers in meat and poultry facilities between April and May 2020 (26), total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among workers (1,029), and total number of COVID-19-related deaths (10).
In many cases, workers in these industries carry the burden of having to be proactive and seek testing on their own time, as most lack access to paid sick days. Lack of safety protections in the workplace puts them in a dangerous position to potentially contract the virus. In addition, many employers are failing to notify employees when a person in the factory or workplace has tested positive for COVID-19, thereby making it nearly impossible for workers to know if they have come into contact with someone with the virus. This is worrisome as workers are not only putting their health on the line, but also risking their families’ well-being, and potentially spreading the virus without knowing it. In sum, employer inaction and failure to fully protect workers are contributing to the continued spread of the virus.
The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) released a report that says that immigrants comprise 20 percent of Illinois’ agricultural workers, food and beverage manufacturing and processing workers, grocery wholesalers, and workers in retail grocery and other food and beverage stores. According to the American Immigration Council, the origin country of 36 percent of immigrants in Illinois is Mexico. It is impossible to deny the massive negative impact COVID-19 is having on the Latinx community.
Additionally, the largely Latinx migrant or seasonal farmworkers and landscapers are extremely vulnerable to respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19 due to the nature of the work they perform. The quality of their jobs requires them to work under harsh climate conditions in the middle of the fields, when harvesting, and in nurseries. These populations are critical essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis with the same urgent needs for protections as those in other industries and the most vulnerable. These workgroups labor in close proximity to each other for prolonged periods to operate the field, harvest, collect, transport the produce, and when sharing other communal areas (e.g., workstations, break rooms, and transportation or housing).
Such continued exposure increases the transmissibility of COVID-19 when in contact with infected co-workers. The exposure to the virus in these groups mainly occurs by respiratory droplets from person-to-person. Other forms of contagion in these groups are similar to meatpacking and production worksites–contaminated surfaces or fomites shared tools, equipment, utilities at the workspace, and the poor access to clean water for hygiene purposes throughout the day. However, a distinctive form of transmissibility of the virus in these groups has been attributed to migrant workers when moving from farm to farm, spreading the virus between communities. Similar to other highly populated Latinx industries, employers failing to protect their workers is leading to increased virus spread.
In late May, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation that would increase access to workers’ compensation benefits for those who were deemed “essential.” But even with these added protections, workers in food processing and packing, manufacturing, and clothing industries are still facing an uphill battle from their employers. Many employers continually fail to provide adequate PPE and social distancing guidelines, and they pressure workers to stay in dangerous conditions, according to reports from worker centers like Arise Chicago. Many employers are failing to provide solutions to combating the virus; in many cases in these industries, they are the problem.
“Crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces, such as many of the workspaces where Latinos are largely employed, means risk of prolonged contact with unknowingly infected persons,” said Dr. Marina Del Rios, an emergency physician and member of the initiative. “Close-contact environments facilitate transmission from a small number of cases to many other people, especially if hand hygiene was not performed and masks were not used where physical distancing was not maintained. As we see more outbreaks of COVID-19 related to indoor activities, there is a growing concern that aerosol transmission may be possible, increasing the importance of reducing the amount of time spent in crowded indoor spaces and maintaining physical distancing and PPE such as masks.”
Jorge Mújica, Strategic Campaigns Organizer at Illinois Unidos member organization, Arise Chicago stated, “Why are there rising numbers of COVID-19 infections in the Latino community? Because Latinos disproportionately work in low-wage, unsafe jobs. They were unsafe jobs before the pandemic. Now they are dangerous and even deadly. Bad employers aren’t protecting their workers’ lives. Period. And that’s why the pandemic keeps spreading. Bad employers need to be held accountable.”
When asked what it looks like on the ground, Mújica said, “We are hearing from over 160 workers every week at Arise Chicago; up from about 25 per week before the pandemic–primarily all Latino immigrants who are scared to go to work, but who can’t afford not to work. Bad employers who didn’t protect workers’ health before the pandemic aren’t doing any better now, even when workers’ lives are at stake. If employers don’t fully implement protocols and precautions to create safe workplaces, we encourage workers to strike for their lives.”
The initiative has identified the following urgent steps and calls on industry leaders and government to take action:
- Employee Testing, Safety, and Tracking Practices
- Request employers to conduct testing at each respective workplace to detect COVID-19 and prevent spread, or partner with one specific testing site to expedite testing and results.
- Add workplace data points at all Covid-19 testing sites to identify problem workplaces, track specific industry positivity trends and prevent spread in these workplaces and industries.
- Health and Social Services Support
- Connect employees to community-based primary care health centers/clinics, social service organizations to support individuals and families in need of services to access these resources during the pandemic.
- Employer Safety Guidelines and Reporting
- Continue to demand strict health and safety workplace guidelines and request appropriate government entities to fine employers if guidelines are not fully followed.
- Require all employers to provide employees proper PPE, handwashing, and workstations/workspaces that promote physical distancing.
- Institute proper cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing practices of all workspaces, surfaces, and shared equipment.
- Require employers to inform ALL employees and local health departments within 24 hours of any reported COVID-19 cases to stop community spread.
- Require workplaces to shut down for 14 days, with pay, after any reported case(s) so that workers can quarantine and prevent virus spread.
- Provide employees and visibly post information about COVID-19 safety practices, resources, and support services.
- Training Services and Practices
- Mandate training on prevention of COVID-19 infection for all employers and their.
- Train managers and supervisors to identify and address signs of mental stress, offering resource lists to their employees.
- State and City Workplace Safety Policies and Procedures
- Ensure all levels of public health departments are empowered to shut down workplaces and fine employers not following guidelines. (In the same way that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has shut down crowded bars and restaurants, city/county/state agencies including public health departments must be able to shut down any workplace that is endangering lives).
- Ensure that prevention and mitigation policies and actions, such as required business closures or limits on numbers of people in a given space, include a focus on workers, not only customers.
- Provide employees who test positive paid leave during isolation, care, and recovery.
- Guarantee protection for whistleblowers and any workers reporting unsafe conditions; and fine employers who retaliate against workers who report unsafe conditions or who request PPE or any other improvement to protect worker health.
- Create a state-level task force to address worker needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Provide guidance regarding which state and/or local government agency to contact if compliances are being met (e.g. contact Attorney General Office, Illinois Department of Public Health).
Illinois Unidos (formerly the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative) is a consortium of over 50 Latino elected and appointed officials, together with health professionals, and representatives of professionals and community-based organizations. The initiative aims to present one united voice in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our communities while addressing related public health issues and the devastating economic impact of COVID-19.
The Initiative as a group has continued to expand and has established a bilingual (Spanish) website IllinoisUnidos.com to share our work and COVID-19 related resources with the public, particularly, the Latinx community.