For months, Ronald Jackson spent his lunch hour investigating to determine which of his coworkers had tested positive for COVID-19. He wanted to know if he’d been exposed to the virus.
“When the lady on the line got sick, they didn’t shut it down. We came in the next day into a dangerous work environment,” Jackson said.
He quickly realized that workers needed to organize and demand better safety measures inside the Mars warehouse in Joliet. He spoke with more than a dozen employees, and they created a list of demands for the company to provide: testing for every employee after an outbreak, personal protective equipment, quarantine pay and hazard pay.
Jackson said many employees supported the list of demands. He shared them during a company meeting. But Jackson said a supervisor didn’t approve of his statement during the meeting and asked him why he wanted to scare the workers.
A month later Jackson was fired, he said.
“You’re going to let me go? For what? It seems like management don’t care. State officials really don’t care. No one cares,” said Jackson, who lives on Chicago’s South Side. “We’re invisible persons.”
In September, Mars employees demonstrated outside the company’s global headquarters in Chicago. They demanded justice for workers at the Joliet facility and alleged that some workers had been fired in retaliation for their complaints about the lack of COVID-19 safety precautions there.
“If we don’t go to work at the warehouse, you don’t get your T-shirt, your toothpaste or nothing,” Jackson added.
Workers like Jackson say they are essential during the pandemic. And they, too, want to be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine. But there’s limited access to the vaccine. In Illinois, for example, health care and nursing home workers are among the first in line to receive the vaccine.
The warehouse and manufacturing industries account for the largest number of COVID-19 outbreaks in Illinois after nursing homes. There’ve been at least 110 outbreaks in warehouses or factories since July, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). Public health officials define an outbreak as five or more cases linked to a common location during a 14-day period.
“Warehouses across the country have become COVID-19 hotspots,” said Nik Theodore, a professor and labor policy expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It means that those frontline workers are bearing the brunt of this pandemic.”
Theodore noted that warehouse workers are working long hours during the holiday season. He said those workers are vulnerable and need protection.
“Online holiday shopping is projected to increase by 33% this year,” said Theodore, adding that warehouse workers in the Chicago metropolitan area handle online orders from throughout the Midwest.
“We’re risking our lives”
Many warehousing and manufacturing jobs in the Chicago region are filled through staffing agencies, which means they don’t typically receive sick time, and they don’t get paid if the warehouse closes for quarantine purposes, said Roberto Clack, associate director for Warehouse Workers for Justice.
Clack said a lot of workers are getting infected as their hours increase during the holiday peak season.
“These are big workplaces with hundreds and sometimes even thousands of workers. So it’s very difficult to social distance,” Clack said. “We’re seeing infections really on the rise, and it’s very concerning.”
Worker advocates said dozens of temporary workers have been infected with COVID-19 at factories and warehouses. They said these workers receive little to no support from their employers. And once they recover from COVID-19, they often don’t have jobs to go back to.
As a result of the lack of testing and the fear of losing their jobs, temporary workers in warehouses and factories are more likely to be exposed to the virus and to continue working once they’re infected, said Tim Bell, executive director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that advocates for temporary workers.
“This workforce moves everything that we consume,” said Bell. “Nothing gets produced, assembled or passed without temporary workers in the factories and warehouses. And everyone depends on this essential work to survive.”
Bell said he knows of at least five temporary workers who’ve died from COVID-19.
“We’re risking our lives coming out here,” Jackson said, adding that he often feels that staffing agencies don’t think their workers are important.
“You’re collateral to them,” he said. “If something happens to you … they move you out the way for someone else [to come] in.”
CoWorx Staffing, the agency that hired Jackson, said they work closely with warehouses to ensure safety precautions are met.
“We have adapted new methods of conducting business during the pandemic, and work closely with our clients to ensure enhanced safety precautions and CDC standard protocol are being followed, from mandatory masks to daily temperature checks,” said Steve Gregersen, a vice president with CoWorx Staffing Services. “We value our field talent, prioritize their well-being, and have been dedicated to workplace safety since the company’s inception 45 years ago, consistently earning Safety Standard of Excellence marks from the American Staffing Association.”
“We’re all afraid of getting infected again”
The warehousing and manufacturing industries have a disproportionate number of Latino workers in the region. While roughly 21% of all workers in the Chicago metro area are Latino, more than 35% in warehousing and manufacturing are Latino, according to a WBEZ analysis of November 2020 Current Population Survey data maintained by the University of Minnesota.
Latino communities have the highest levels of COVID-19 infection, according to a WBEZ analysis of public health data.
During the pandemic, Carmen Atilano had been working longer hours at the Home Run Inn warehouse in southwest suburban Woodridge where they make frozen pizzas. Like many of her coworkers, Atilano contracted the virus last month.
“It was sad because there are a lot of workers who’ve been infected. And the employers never tell us,” she said in Spanish.
There have been 19 COVID-19 cases at that facility since March, according to a company spokesperson. But Atilano said at least 40 of her coworkers there have been infected. She said employers didn’t check the workers’ temperatures or properly disinfect common areas, like the cafeteria.
“I think it’s essential that they give [the vaccine] to us because we are the ones that are working to make the food that everyone will be eating at home,” she said. “We’re all afraid of getting infected again.”
In all, among Home Run Inn’s 10 locations across the country, 53 workers have contracted the virus, according to a company spokesperson.
Atilano said her job is just as important as the jobs in health care because she’s producing food for everyone. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was asked to work between 10 and 12 hours per day to keep up with the demand for food.
“We need the vaccine so that we’re able to work safely,” she said.
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.