Risking COVID-19 Exposure Again Is The Only Option For These Temp Workers

Temporary Workers
Two people visit a temporary worker employment business in Manchester, N.H., Monday, April 27, 2020. A new survey of temporary workers in Illinois finds many are fearful of getting COVID-19 at work because social distancing is not always possible. Charles Krupa / AP
Temporary Workers
Two people visit a temporary worker employment business in Manchester, N.H., Monday, April 27, 2020. A new survey of temporary workers in Illinois finds many are fearful of getting COVID-19 at work because social distancing is not always possible. Charles Krupa / AP

Risking COVID-19 Exposure Again Is The Only Option For These Temp Workers

July was a terrible month for Angelica’s family.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Angelica says she and her husband kept working in factories that ignored safety guidelines set by the state. WBEZ agreed not to use Angelica’s last name because she’s undocumented and fears deportation.

“No one cleaned the factory at my husband’s job. All the workers ate lunch together at the same time. There’s like 60 employees there,” she said in Spanish. “I told him we should report it, but we were too afraid.”

By July, her husband became infected with the virus, and she got sick soon after. She remembers that month as one of the most difficult times in her life.

“I was so afraid, desperate and sad. We were so poor we often didn’t have enough to eat,” she said. “I was so afraid to ask for help. We didn’t want our neighbors to know we were sick.”

Angelica and her husband are both undocumented and both work for staffing agencies that send them to warehouses and factories to work earning $10 an hour. No health insurance, no sick time off. She has four children. They all live in a two-bedroom apartment.

“I think my children are traumatized,” she said. “They hear us talking about money, and I see it in their faces. I think they are depressed too.”

Angelica is one of the 130 temp workers surveyed in Illinois for a report released today titled: ‘We do not have the luxury of working from home.” The report by the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, which advocates for temps, surveyed people who work in food processing, manufacturing, warehousing and logistics. They are considered essential workers. In Illinois, the majority of these workers are Black and brown, the report said.

Half of the workers said they felt “unsafe or very unsafe” working during the pandemic. Half of the workers also reported their workplaces were unable to adhere to the 6 feet of social distance guidelines set by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Nik Theodore, professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has studied the temp worker industry for years. Theodore said assembly lines typically have machines that can’t be moved to accommodate for social distancing.

“If workers are shoulder to shoulder in an assembly line, they can’t social distance,” he said.

Another problem temp workers reported is that companies did not disclose when others got the virus. Instead, the majority of the temp workers relied on each other for information on which employee might have the virus.

The majority of workers said they received personal protective equipment from their employers but said it was insufficient and inadequate, the report said.

“There was an overwhelming response of feeling like the companies don’t care about them,” said Jannelle White, an organizer with the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative. The companies don’t value them.”

That’s how Angelica said she feels.

“They just want us to produce,” she said. “They don’t care about us. They just care about the production.”

After her husband recovered from COVID-19 and tested negative, he went back to work. But she hasn’t been able to because she needs to be clear of the coronavirus. Angelica took two tests that came back positive for COVID-19. She’s waiting on a third test. She still doesn’t feel 100% healthy, but her family is behind on rent and they need the money. She said the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative gave her some money for rent when she was sick but that’s gone, so she’s willing to return to an environment that she thinks is unsafe. There’s no other alternative.

“I need to work,” she said. “We live paycheck to paycheck.”

The report pushes for regulators to enforce Gov. JB Pritzker’s COVID-19 guidelines which require social distancing, screening and face masks.

Mike Matulis, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Labor, said temp workers with safety concerns should contact “either federal OSHA or the Illinois Attorney General’s Workplace Rights Bureau.”

But Theodore said relying on temp workers to report dangerous work conditions is not realistic. He said many would not want to risk being fired in a time of high unemployment during a dangerous pandemic.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.