Transcript

COVID’s Hidden Toll

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SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] When I first heard they were going to close stores, restaurants and all that, that frightened me.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] My first thought was to protect ourselves, to not leave the house.

When it comes to my health, I don't talk about this with anyone: I have cancer.

But in these times, it’s necessity that makes us work, despite the fear we have.

Are you on your way?

MALE VOICE ON PHONE:

[Speaking Spanish] Yes.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] I'm asking you because you’ve got me here in the cold.

MALE VOICE ON PHONE:

[Speaking Spanish] Well, I'm on my way. There’s five minutes to go. I said 4 o’clock.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] We’re shaking here in the cold. Hurry, please.

MALE VOICE ON PHONE:

[Speaking Spanish] I'm almost there. Relax.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Good morning.

We are packed like sardines in that van. All 15 of us. There’s no social distancing there. We're all huddled together like siblings. We don’t really fit.

I am an essential worker. Why? Because we harvest the vegetables that most people in this country put on their table. We go out to the field and expose ourselves. We are not robots. Just because we work in the fields, it doesn't mean we won’t get infected.

We will get infected.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Millions of farmworkers now still in the fields across the nation.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

—agricultural workers testing positive for COVID-19 is on the rise.

MALE NEWSREADER:

At least 10,000 meatpacking workers across the country have been infected.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Often facing crowded and unsanitary conditions without—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

—with little or no protective gear, their lives and the nation’s food supply are at risk.

DAFFODIL ALTAN, Correspondent:

As millions of Americans were sheltering in place over the past months, we began looking at the toll the coronavirus was taking on those who cannot stay home: agricultural workers, many of them undocumented, who were deemed essential to the nation’s food supply.

I’ve been reporting in this community for years, and as the annual harvest was starting in California this spring, I was hearing from workers who were daily having to choose between their jobs and their health.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] All of us farmworkers are making a big sacrifice out of necessity. Above all else, out of necessity, because of hunger, to be able to feed our families and to have a place to live.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Sinthia Hernandez is one of the few workers out of dozens we spoke to who agreed to go on camera. She's a broccoli picker in the Salinas Valley, a region in California that produces most of the country’s leafy greens.

In addition to having cancer, Sinthia has diabetes, both of which put her at high risk for complications if she contracts COVID-19.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] They are not giving us the essentials to protect ourselves.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

She works for a contractor that supplies workers to farms in the area. She told me she's expected to bring her own mask to work.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Those of us who are working have so much debt and bills to pay that the money sometimes isn’t even enough to buy one mask, because each mask costs $3 to $4 at the store. And it's disposable.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

When we met Sinthia in April, there were no required COVID protections for farmworkers beyond general rules about masks and social distancing. Even now, companies don’t have to tell workers about outbreaks.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] I want to take an ibuprofen. My throat hurts.

MAX CUEVAS, M.D., CEO, Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas:

Because if one farmworker gets sick, you're going to get a crew, which is typically 30 people, sick. And if each of those people goes out, they're going to get three to four other people, because that's the infection rate. And so the thing snowballs.

Good morning, everybody!

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Dr. Max Cuevas runs a network of clinics in the Salinas Valley that primarily serves farmworkers.

MAX CUEVAS:

And so with my staff, I told them we need to plan. With whatever little resources we have, we need to plan to make sure that those resources are, in fact, available. So we thought, let’s jump in and let’s begin making masks.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Just before dawn, Dr. Cuevas’ team was meeting workers as they caught rides to the fields.

MALE SOCIAL WORKER:

[Speaking Spanish] Good morning. We’re from the health clinic. We’re giving away masks. Would you like one?

MALE FARMWORKER:

[Speaking Spanish] Well, yes.

MALE SOCIAL WORKER:

[Speaking Spanish] Will more people come?

We’re from the health clinic. We’re giving masks, would you like one? Would you like masks?

FEMALE FARMWORKER:

[Speaking Spanish] Thank you.

MALE SOCIAL WORKER:

[Speaking Spanish] We are giving away masks. One for you and one for your wife.

Want a mask?

MAX CUEVAS:

When our state and federal governments announced that the farmworker was a part of the essential workforce, included with health care, first responders, police—that's not your middle class essential worker that people are talking about. This essential worker, a lot of them do, in fact, live in fear. They don't want people to know that they're here undocumented. There's that fear of "I could be gone tomorrow if I am taken away. And what's going to happen to my family?" It's a horrible kind of fear that people learn to live with. You try to assure them that don't be afraid of that one right now. Be afraid of the virus.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

By mid April, the first cases of COVID-19 had been identified in the Salinas Valley, and there were increasing fears about it spreading among farmworkers and their families.

ROSA ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] In my family, there are 11 people living in one house, including four children. Two with asthma. And yes, I was worried.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

It was around this time that we met Rosa Orellana, a truck driver who was worried about what might happen in her family of produce workers.

ROSA ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] I decided not to come home for 15 days as a way of protecting my family. But I have cousins living with us who need to work in the lettuce fields.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Rosa’s cousins were living with her family and working for a large grower called Tanimura & Antle.

One of her cousins, Osmar, said that although the company gave them masks and gloves, it was still difficult to do the work and not get close.

OSMAR ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] Because there are a lot of us in our crew, it’s hard to keep a distance from each other. We're always working very close to each other.

At work, we all use the same bathrooms, drink water from the same place. Everybody goes. There's no separation.

ROSA ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] And I asked him, "Do they separate you?" He said, "No, we go all together on the bus."

At that moment I thought, "Wow, it’s going to be difficult to control the disease because they're all together."

OSMAR ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] Some of the people we would catch a ride with were already showing symptoms. There was one guy who was very feverish and also had a cough.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Osmar says he heard through co-workers that someone on his crew had tested positive for COVID-19, but his supervisors were not giving them any information about what was happening.

OSMAR ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] They didn’t tell us anything. The only thing they said was that if we were feeling sick we should stay home. I was scared and really stressed out at work thinking about getting this disease.

Honestly, we were all panicking.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Without information and afraid they would get sick, his crew collectively decided to stop working. Osmar went home to self-quarantine, but he was already coming down with symptoms.

ROSA ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] That Friday I came home. I knocked on Osmar’s door and asked him, "Are you sick?" And he said, "Yes, I have a fever." And he told us that someone in his crew had tested positive.

At that moment you—your blood pressure drops, and, I don’t know, you go cold.

OSMAR ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] We didn’t know what was going to happen, so we decided to go and get tested.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Osmar went to get tested along with his wife and brother, who also worked at the company.

OSMAR ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] They first called my wife and said that she had tested positive. Then they called my brother and me and said we tested positive.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Several other co-workers also tested positive. They were among the first farmworkers in Monterey County to be diagnosed with COVID-19.

ROSA ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] We panicked because we didn’t know how long they had been infected and how many of us in our house could be infected—the kids, my mom, my brother. We just didn’t know. We are 11 people. Four children. And if we're all infected, who will take care of us? Or what would happen? What will we do?

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

During this time, we were hearing that there were dozens of cases at Tanimura & Antle, so we wanted to talk to the company about the infections and what they were doing to protect workers. But they did not respond to our repeated requests for an interview.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Local produce giant Tanimura & Antle confirmed one of their employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

The company publicly confirmed only one COVID case and said they'd sent those in contact with the sick worker home with paid leave.

When we asked local health officials in Monterey County to confirm the number, they said they do not release information about infections at specific companies.

We received similar responses from other counties in the state. In fact, it was hard to find much information at all about the overall number of farmworkers getting sick.

ROBERT RIVAS, (D) CA assemblyman:

I believe local governments, I believe counties, especially ag-based counties, should be releasing any and all data related to infections, outbreaks, because without that information, it's nearly impossible to try to get this virus under control.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

California Assembly Member Robert Rivas grew up in farmworker housing, and his district includes the Salinas Valley. He told me that even the little data that is available about who's getting sick points to a disproportionate toll in the farmworker community.

ROBERT RIVAS:

Latinos make up 39%, almost 40% of the statewide population.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

But they now account for more than half of all COVID cases in California.

ROBERT RIVAS:

And so certainly that is well above the representation of Latinos statewide. And so trying to understand how this is impacting our farmworker communities is incredibly important.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

And that’s been a growing concern in agricultural communities experiencing outbreaks across the country.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Thirty-one employees of a local farm company have been infected by the coronavirus.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Southern Valley says 100% of the employees at Henderson Farm have tested positive.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Scott’s Strawberry & Tomato Farm shut down after more than two dozen of its employees tested positive for COVID-19.

ROBERT RIVAS:

This is a once-in-a-century pandemic, and our workers, they deserve to have laws in place that are going to reflect these incredible challenges that we face. Our laws need to reflect this new reality. And something like disclosing potential outbreaks on the worksite needs to become the standard in our state, and really in our country.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Agricultural workers in the U.S., especially the undocumented, have long been among the most exploited and the lowest paid.

In our years of reporting on farmworkers, we’ve found abuses involving children who have been forced to work against their will and women who have been sexually assaulted on the job.

As the pandemic was taking hold, we heard from one of our longtime sources, Maricruz Ladino, a farmworker in Salinas who we first met seven years ago when she shared her story of being sexually assaulted by a supervisor.

[Speaking Spanish] Tell me about the moment that farmworkers are living through right now.

MARICRUZ LADINO:

[Speaking Spanish] They're suffering right now in—they're caught between two fronts. They stay home to protect themselves and their families, or they go to work.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

She’s now a dispatcher for a large lettuce grower and has become an advocate for farmworkers by volunteering at a legal aid organization.

[Speaking Spanish] Does it worry you that people are afraid to go to the doctor or to the hospital if they feel sick?

MARICRUZ LADINO:

[Speaking Spanish] I'm worried about the fear that people have of going to the doctor. I'm worried about their fear to admit if they are having any symptoms. The fact is, if they stay quiet they will transmit the virus to the rest because of their fear.

It’s the dread of being deported, the dread of losing your job and having nowhere else to work.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] My biggest fear is getting infected. Because if I were to get infected I might infect my family. And the most sacred thing to me is my family.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

As infections were climbing in Monterey County, Sinthia Hernandez told me she was worried about family members who, like her, also have underlying conditions.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] There’s the pozole, Mom. What are you going to eat?

SINTHIA’S MOTHER:

[Speaking Spanish] No, I don’t want anything, I feel very bad right now.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] I'm the head of my family. I have my mother living with me. I have two disabled siblings. One is deaf, mute and blind. My sister is quadriplegic. She can’t walk. And I have two children.

SINTHIA’S MOTHER:

[Speaking Spanish] We have to understand that we still run a very big risk and that we have to take the recommended precaution to cover—you know, the mask.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Why take care of yourself by not going out and wearing a mask when you shop when, for example, the guys who are harvesting are not getting any protective gear. They aren’t given anything. And we don't know where they go or who they're around.

This is part of my treatment that I have to take every day. I prep them for the week, since I work in the fields. I have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11. Among these medicines, one is my chemotherapy. Unfortunately, no one in my house can work but me.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

While the coronavirus was taking hold in the fields, it was already racing through food processing plants across the nation.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The coronavirus pandemic is closing down meatpacking facilities across the country.

MALE NEWSREADER:

At least 22 meat processing plants already shut down in this country—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

We heard about a growing outbreak a few hours from Salinas at one of the biggest meat processors in the U.S.

MALE NEWSREADER:

—at the Central Valley Meat Company in Hanford, that’s about 30 miles south—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Central Valley Meat employs around 700 people at its plant in Kings County. The company has a history of violating health and safety codes and has been cited for animal abuses, as seen in this undercover footage. In the last decade it’s had two beef recalls and been shut down three times.

When the virus appeared at the plant in April, workers told us that at first the company did nothing to protect them.

MALE EMPLOYEE:

When it started, they denied everything. There was people getting suspended for showing up with a face mask. A couple of people were actually coughing and they wore the mask just because they were coughing, and they got sent home.

They used the phrase "you're scaring the employees, your co-workers."

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

Management will say that it's just rumors that someone had posted on social media.

MALE EMPLOYEE:

A lot of people started missing and then they started calling them and threatening them about their jobs. If they didn't show up to go back to work, they would be getting fired.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

These two employees spoke to us on the condition that we not disclose their identities because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

MALE NEWSREADER:

In the Central Valley, at least 138 employees tested positive for COVID-19 at a meatpacking plant—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

They said that it wasn’t until the outbreak made the local news that the company began to implement safety measures.

MALE EMPLOYEE:

After everything came out on the news, everybody was kind of panicking.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

After the outbreak, they started separating us in different tables, apart. And then they were providing us with face masks because most of us were complaining. We were like, "We need to protect ourselves."

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

According to the workers, more people kept showing up sick every day.

MALE EMPLOYEE:

People were going in sick—fever, throwing up, coughing. They asked you at the gate, "Do you have any of these symptoms?" You tell them yes. "OK. You can go right down and go ahead and work." It's like, "Shouldn't I go home?" No, just go ahead and go to work.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

They worked inside a plant they say looked similar to this one, and that even as the virus spread, the pressure to keep up production continued.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

We still see people who had came back who are coughing and sneezing. They don't even cover their mouths because they're moving constantly because the line’s running fast. And some of them when they sneeze, the paper towels are kind of far away from them, so some of them, they just wipe it off on their face mask or on their smock.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Central Valley Meat declined our repeated requests to discuss the outbreak. But the company has publicly denied threatening to fire workers or punishing them for being out sick.

In late April, the company sent a note to employees comparing the outbreak to a normal flu season and saying that "the coronavirus is not some cloud floating around waiting to infect someone” and assured employees that nightly cleaning was killing any potential virus residue.

MARK LAURITSEN, Vice Pres., UFCW:

Early on in the pandemic outbreak inside plants, it was chaos, it was fear, it was anxiety.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

I reached out to union leader Mark Lauristen, who’d been monitoring outbreaks in plants around the country.

MARK LAURITSEN:

Nobody knew exactly what they were dealing with, and that just led to if you were a worker in a meatpacking plant looking for answers, those answers were hard to come by early on in this pandemic.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

So how how big is this problem?

MARK LAURITSEN:

Just in meatpacking alone in the United States, over 14,000 of our members have been exposed or contracted COVID-19 because of their proximity to work. Fourteen thousand people. And those are just our members. So if you look across the entire industry, you’re probably looking at a number that’s substantially higher than that.

And when you have 14,000 of our members that are exposed and sick, that's a tremendous stress on the efficiency of the whole food supply chain in this country. And quite honestly, if we want to protect our food supply chain in this country, let's protect those workers.

FEMALE REPORTER:

Mr. President, on the food supply chain—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

In late April, large outbreaks were forcing plants around the country to close down until the president signed an executive order that prompted companies to stay open.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

We're going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that’ll solve any liability problems where—

MALE EMPLOYEE:

When the president said that they weren't going to be closing the meat plants down, everybody got upset, because we were just getting ready to close. At least that's what they were telling us.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Both of these Central Valley Meat employees told us that they tested positive for COVID-19

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

I started getting lightheaded. My body just started aching. I felt really hot from inside. My chest starting to hurt. I couldn't really breathe. I told my management, I asked them if I could leave, and then they were not going to let me go. They said that if you want to get tested, you will have to go on your own time. We thought it should be the company's job to take care of us—you know, the workers.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

By early May, local health officials began testing workers on-site.

MALE EMPLOYEE:

I know a lot of the people that are sick. Some work next to me. Some I see at the break room. I'll see them in the restrooms.

Yesterday a co-worker showed up to work and she was coughing. She told us that she was threatened with her job if she didn't show up to work.

From Central Valley Meat

Facebook page

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Production at the plant never stopped, even as the community around it developed one of the fastest infection growth rates in the country.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

No, the company never closed. They didn't even shut down for—not even a day. Even though if it was 40 people working, we were still killing cows and still working.

MALE EMPLOYEE:

Every day we go to work we're thinking about the coronavirus. If we're going to catch it again. Who's going to catch it? Is it on the walls? Is it on the product? Is it on the equipment we use?

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

Up till today, I'm still going to work, even though I'm positive right now.

MALE EMPLOYEE:

It doesn't feel like we're essential workers. It feels like we're slaves.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Nearly 200 workers at the company have tested positive for COVID-19, making it one of the largest outbreaks in the state. And around the country, it’s estimated that at least 35,000 meatpacking workers have been infected, with more than 100 deaths.

With the crisis escalating, state and federal agencies began issuing workplace safety guidelines to employers.

Central Valley Meat told us in a statement that they’re now following that guidance, but the guidelines are all voluntary.

MARK LAURITSEN:

What that means is if an employer doesn't want to do it, it's just guidance—you don't have to do it. And that's not fair to those people that work in that industry who need to have a safe workplace.

The fact is, in this industry, there are 65 of our brothers and sisters that passed away. And they passed away because government agencies have failed.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

The federal agency that oversees workplace safety, OSHA, declined to speak with us but said in a statement that they’re taking steps to address unsafe workplaces and that the voluntary guidelines were enough to protect workers against COVID-19.

David Michaels, the head of OSHA under President Obama, disagrees.

DAVID MICHAELS, MPH, Ph.D., Fmr. U.S. Asst. Sec. of Labor, OSHA:

The evidence is very clear that recommendations aren't working. The numbers of cases of COVID-19 in factory workers and farmworkers continues to rise. The recommendations are out there, but we know that they're not being followed enough. There are some employers who are trying to do a good job, but a lot of them, frankly, aren't.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

What can federal OSHA do right now?

DAVID MICHAELS:

Well, the first thing the federal government should do is issue requirements. Issue a regulation saying every employer must have a plan to make sure workers are protected. Because if we don't protect workers on the job, we're not going to stop this epidemic. And workers will pay the high price of that.

The Trump administration could do this now. Under the OSHA law, the federal government can issue an emergency regulation. They can do that tomorrow, saying employers must protect workers from COVID-19.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Early on in the pandemic, Maricruz Ladino told us that unlike many companies she’d heard about, her employer was being aggressive about implementing protections.

MARICRUZ LADINO:

[Speaking Spanish] At the company where I work, they're providing all that we need. Why? To take care of us, so we can take care of our families.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

I asked her boss at Field Fresh Farms about the safety measures they were taking.

CRAIG DOBLER, Owner, Field Fresh Farms:

We had that question from the get-go. People ask, "Is it a safe place to be?" We sanitize daily, obviously, just our normal food safety protocol. We're above and beyond all the third-party certifications we have just on a day-to-day basis of what we have to do to produce a food item in a package. So, really, the only step above for us was physically putting face masks on.

Part of it is you don't want them going home, getting their family sick—other members, young kids, elderly at their home. And we don't want the people in the crew getting sick because we need a full crew, and if one person gets sick, maybe the mentality of the rest of them are, maybe it's not a safe place to be. All of the above.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

And what about in the fields? What are you doing?

CRAIG DOBLER:

Fields, same thing. We are splitting crews, splitting times they come in. We've had some people—we've offered it, if they wanted to continue to come in or do a shelter in place.

We understand if you want to be at home. And there's a few that chose to stay at home, at least for the two-week period that they initially said they thought it would be.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Where they paid? Were they paid if they sheltered in place?

CRAIG DOBLER:

Those are not right now, the people that chose to stay home. They're laid off, and whether they're—it's up to them if they want to seek unemployment or not. And again, we haven't had anybody to point that's been reported to be sick anywhere in any one of our entities.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Though there have been no known infections at work, Maricruz is worried because several relatives have already been infected.

MARICRUZ LADINO:

[Speaking Spanish] Each day that I go out to work, from the moment I get up, I thank God for another day but honestly, yes, I'm scared. But I haven’t shown it to anyone in my family or my loved ones. I still want them to see that I'm a strong person. But inside me, yes, there is fear.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Good afternoon.

MALE SUPERVISOR [on phone]:

[Speaking Spanish] Good afternoon.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Good afternoon, this is Sinthia Hernandez.

MALE SUPERVISOR [on phone]:

Uh-huh.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Someone tested positive in our crew. I need you to explain to me what's going on.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

For Sinthia Hernandez, her worst fear seemed to be coming true.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Unfortunately, yesterday I got the news that—that they quarantined two co-workers in my crew. They were with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

I demanded that my foreman to tell me what they were going to do. But he didn’t want to answer me or tell me what was going on. But I have every right to demand that he inform me. It is my health and it is the health and welfare of my children.

I felt really upset. Especially because of my condition. So we’ve come to see if they can test us.

FEMALE NURSE:

[Speaking Spanish] What is your first and last name?

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Sinthia Hernandez.

FEMALE NURSE:

[Speaking Spanish] First time?

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Yes.

FEMALE NURSE:

[Speaking Spanish] It’s not going to hurt, but it’s going to feel a little awkward, OK? But it’s going to be fast. Look up and try not to move, OK?

That’s all, ma’am.

And you're going to get the results in 72 hours, OK?

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Thank you very much. Likewise.

I’m going to be calling so that everyone in my house gets tested. I don’t want any more time to pass with all of us at risk.

And I'm just frustrated because unfortunately, I have to go to work. I could stay home, but then no one would pay my bills. No one knows what I'm going through at home and what compels me to work, you know?

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Over our months of reporting, we heard many stories like Sinthia’s—about workers feeling pressured by their circumstances and by their employers.

One of those employers was Taylor Farms, a multibillion-dollar company in the Salinas Valley. It has 20,000 employees across the country and sells lettuce to retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods.

Company video

TAYLOR FARMS PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

Here at Taylor Farms the good news is that food safety has always been a big focus.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

When the pandemic hit, the company said it was taking all appropriate measures to protect its workers.

TAYLOR FARMS PROMOTIONAL VIDEO:

—so a big part of education for us with all of our team members was to help everybody understand that we owe it to each other to keep each other healthy. And as a company, we needed to make sure that people felt comfortable staying home. And so—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

But when an employee tested positive at Taylor’s flagship organic packing plant in early May, workers told us the company sent a different message.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

[Speaking Spanish] That day when we arrived, there were a lot of people whispering, and I went over and asked what was happening. And they said that there was a co-worker who tested positive.

I felt chills all over my body. I thought about my family, about my co-workers, about what would happen to all of us.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

We spoke to this Taylor Farms employee, who is concealing her identity because she's afraid of losing her job.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

[Speaking Spanish] And I thought about recording in case I needed proof.

MALE MANAGER:

[Speaking Spanish] What happened here is not to be taken lightly. It is serious. We have stopped two hours of production. And that is something we cannot do.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

She shot this video on her cellphone of an HR manager addressing employees who had refused to work.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

[Speaking Spanish] I thought the company was going to do something, that they weren’t going to let us inside to work because of what was happening.

MALE MANAGER:

[Speaking Spanish] Because of this situation, and sadly, today, you could all be fired.

FEMALE VOICE:

[Speaking Spanish] What you are saying is—

MALE MANAGER:

[Speaking Spanish] Give me one second—

EMPLOYEE:

[Speaking Spanish] He’s firing us?

MALE MANAGER:

[Speaking Spanish] When I'm done talking here—

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Spanish] He says whoever wants to go, basically they're going to fire them.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

[Speaking Spanish] That’s why I'm recording this!

He said that if we weren’t sure about going back in to work to go to Human Resources to sign a paper like a resignation and file for unemployment.

MALE MANAGER:

[Speaking Spanish] We're not firing you. It’s called a “voluntary quit.”

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

[Speaking Spanish] None of us agreed with that because what they were actually doing was firing us. That’s what we all understood. And the argument started. Why were they trying to fire us if we didn’t feel safe working that particular day?

MALE MANAGER:

[Speaking Spanish] Sadly, it's something I don’t want to do and I hope that the people who decide to leave can find a job soon, because the situation is serious. Thirty million unemployment applications—

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

[Speaking Spanish] If the sick person was working closely with us eight days ago, you can imagine how many people he could have contaminated as well. That’s what he didn’t understand.

And they told us, no, that outside was more contaminated than inside. We should go inside, where it was virus-free.

MALE MANAGER:

[Speaking Spanish] If for any reason, the kid has the virus and he touched something, the virus is no longer there because it has been more than four hours. That is to say, this is the healthiest thing and the safest that could happen. So I need everybody to get on the clock. Did you all punch in?

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

[Speaking Spanish] That’s what made us upset, because we do want to work. But we want to be safe.

MALE MANAGER:

[Speaking Spanish] The product will be pushed out, with or without us. It'll still go out. This company has been operating for 30 years. It'll keep going out. If you all do not go in, they will most likely fire me. That is the most logical. But the product will go out. They will put others here. Others will come.

But the company will not stop for us. That I do guarantee. So we all have to decide, “OK, are we in shape to be without a week’s salary while I wait for unemployment benefits? Am I in shape to help my family without a job?” Everyone has to think about that.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

We talked to the manager in the video. He would not go on camera but said he was trying to keep people safe and stay productive.

Taylor Farms also declined to go on camera. In a statement, they said they worked hard to maintain the food supply while putting in place expanded health and safety protocols for their employees.

In the end, all but a handful of the roughly 250 workers returned to their shift that day.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE:

[Speaking Spanish] Using fear, they practically pushed us back inside to work. And in order to not lose my job—because right now, work is scarce, and we all have expenses. That’s what made me decide to go back in and put everything in God’s hands.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

We reached out to the head of the association that represents Taylor Farms as well as other large growers in California.

How familiar are you with what happened at Taylor Farms or at Tanimura & Antle?

CHRISTOPHER VALADEZ, Pres., Grower-Shipper Assn. of Central CA:

Taylor, I’m not. I’m not. Tanimura, I know what they reported to the media, based on their statement. So I’m not—I don’t know what goes on within a company. We don’t have intel in each and every case as to what exactly happened and why and how or what did an employer do in their reaction. But where these come up and we learn about them—and at the end of the day we almost always learn that a company where there’s an issue, that an issue happened—we take it upon ourselves to engage them.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Valadez said his association issued early safety protocols and is part of a unique coalition with local officials, farmworker advocates and doctors. But he said he’s opposed to companies having to publicly disclose their COVID cases.

CHRISTOPHER VALADEZ:

And I think it’s important to see context and significance as important because it can distract from what the company has done to protect their employees. It can distract from the fact that there’s no such thing as zero risk. And so something may happen, and the company may have taken the best, most appropriate steps. They could have communicated as clearly and concisely and as frequently as is humanly possible. The employer could have volunteered to provide housing to this employee where there is no requirement to do so. But none of that would get captured. The only thing that the general public would then know and be able to formulate an opinion on is that this employer may have done something wrong because here we have associated a negative, which is the occurrence of people that are COVID-19-positive, to a particular company. Now, were a company—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

So you’re saying that putting that information out there would be negative press for the company. Just doesn’t look good.

CHRISTOPHER VALADEZ:

I think in general, yes. We would expect employers, that should have the responsibility to make sure they’re clearly communicating with employees, to educate and help address any fears that may result, because we’re all living in a situation of the unknown.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

As the coronavirus has continued to spread, Assemblyman Rivas has been pushing for workplace safety measures that companies must follow.

ROBERT RIVAS:

I expected more from Cal/OSHA, I expected more from federal OSHA, to really intervene and to do more in the way of ensuring that there is industrywide regulations to protect our farmworkers. Unfortunately, farmworkers don't have high-paid lobbyists, which makes the passage of any significant legislation very challenging, to be quite honest.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

In the meantime, California's Gov. Gavin Newsom has stepped in. He's announced measures to help agricultural workers, including enforcing safety guidelines that until now have been voluntary.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM:

This is talking about compliance on health and safety in our meatpacking facilities. One should not have to put their life at risk to go to work as an essential worker.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

The governor is creating "strike teams" that will inspect work sites in targeted counties and could fine companies that are not following the guidelines.

ROBERT RIVAS:

Now that we have statewide guidelines in place, now that the governor has made the commitment to enforce those guidelines is a step in the right direction.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

But Rivas said the state still needs to do more to understand the scope of the outbreak among farmworkers.

ROBERT RIVAS:

And clearly, when it comes to COVID-19, this discussion needs to be driven by data. Who is infected? Where are they infected? Why were they infected? We need to do everything we can to acquire the data that's going to help us make informed decisions, but also create and introduce legislation to address problems.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Some counties are now providing data on agricultural worker infections, and the numbers are alarming. Agricultural workers are three times more likely to get COVID-19 than other workers in Monterey County, according to a new analysis by the California Institute for Rural Studies. And research out of UC-San Diego found that in counties across the U.S. where there are more farmworkers, more people are dying of COVID-19.

MAX CUEVAS:

I think the average American has no concept of how food reaches our table. We don’t know how meat is processed. We have no idea where lettuce comes from. We have no idea how it’s harvested. I think there’s a huge disconnect with those of us who have sheltered in place not understanding how those people work and how much they have to work to make a living and to make it profitable for the company that they’re working for.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

As for Osmar Orellana, he ended up spending two weeks in isolation with his wife and brother.

OSMAR ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] We were in the room from the 10th until the 24th.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

[Speaking Spanish] So, yesterday.

OSMAR ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] Yes, yesterday.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

[Speaking Spanish] You just got out.

OSMAR ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] Yes.

My main concern is going back to work and getting sick again. We are weak now and going back to the same thing. We don’t know what could happen, if we'll be able to resist the disease or if we’ll get it again.

We have no choice but to keep working.

ROSA ORELLANA:

[Speaking Spanish] I personally recommended that they wait one more week, because to return to the place where you know you could have met death is not easy.

MALE VOICE ON PHONE:

Thank you for calling OptumServe Health Services. If this is an emergency, please hang up and call 911.

FEMALE VOICE ON PHONE:

[Speaking Spanish] For Spanish, press number 8.

MALE VOICE ON PHONE:

All of our agents are currently busy assisting other callers. Please remain on the line and your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.

CHRISTY [on phone]:

Thank you for calling OptumServe, this is Christy, how can I help you?

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

Buenas—do you speak Spanish?

CHRISTY [on phone]:

I do not. Do you need an interpreter?

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

Yes, please.

CHRISTY [on phone]:

One minute.

GERMÁN [on phone]:

[Speaking Spanish] Hello, good afternoon, I'm Germán. I'll be your interpreter.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] My name is Sinthia Hernandez. I want to know the results of my test? They were supposed to deliver them to me in 48 to 72 hours. They didn’t give them to me and they told me to call this number.

GERMÁN [on phone]:

[Speaking Spanish] When was the test done?

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Tuesday, last week.

GERMÁN [on phone]:

[Speaking Spanish] Sinthia, your COVID-19 result was negative.

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] Thank you so much.

GERMÁN [on phone]:

[Speaking English] Thank you so much.

[Speaking Spanish] Is there anything else I can help you with?

SINTHIA HERNANDEZ:

[Speaking Spanish] No, that will be it, thank you so much.

I like the field because it’s something I learned, it’s something I love, something I respect, and it’s my job. When I go to the store and I see broccoli I say, "Wow. It was our hands that cut it, our hands that harvested it."

This pandemic is not going to end until it’s over, or they say there’s no more risk. And unfortunately, it seems like it’s going to be a long time.

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President Biden
The story of how crisis and tragedy prepared Joe Biden to become America’s next president.
January 19, 2021