Tensions are breaking out between employers and workers across the U.S. as some companies push to keep producing during the coronavirus pandemic and some employees push back over health concerns and other issues.
In recent days, plant workers have walked off the job at companies ranging from poultry producer Perdue Farms Inc. to soda maker Refresco B.V. At Tyson Foods Inc., workers petitioned for more paid sick leave. Some want more protective equipment. Others have complained to regulators about unsafe conditions.
Warnings about social distancing and exposure have also surfaced new concerns, especially when doing business in close quarters seems to conflict with guidance from health officials about physical distancing.
“The next phase of concern is safety in the workplace,” said William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.
Protections like physical spacing of employees are particularly important, said Mr. Schaffner, because the virus spreads even from those who aren’t symptomatic. Identifying sick workers by checking employees’ fever, he said, “is helpful but not the complete story.”
Meatpacking, which is seeing increased demand as Americans batten down at home, is one industry where workers have become concerned about being in proximity while cutting carcasses and trimming meat. Some companies have spaced workers farther apart and staggered shift starts and break times. Tyson and others have begun offering employees masks and gloves, and taking their temperatures.
Earlier this week, the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic civil-rights group, asked the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for broader guidance on safety equipment, paid sick leave and regular health checks for plant employees. A significant share of meatpacking-plant employees are immigrants.
Last week, about two dozen workers at a Perdue Farms chicken plant walked off their jobs in Georgia, complaining that the company wasn’t doing enough to prevent coronavirus infection, and not paying them enough. Perdue said that after speaking with management, most of the employees returned to work. The Perdue plant isn’t represented by a union.
Perdue said it had already boosted plant sanitation and extended hours for its on-site wellness centers, which are free for employees and their families. It has also temporarily increased pay for hourly plant workers, and waived a waiting period to get short-term disability benefits, a spokeswoman said. The company is also offering free chicken to employees.
It is unusual for nonunion employees to walk off jobs, particularly immigrant workers in meatpacking and other industries. “I was floored,” said Deborah Berkowitz, a former U.S. OSHA official and poultry-worker safety advocate. “The workers have very few safety rights if they refuse to work.”
In Arkansas, a group called Venceremos, which was founded last year and works with poultry workers, has called on Tyson to expand pay for workers who have to stay home sick, saying the company’s existing policy doesn’t go far enough. In an interview, a worker complained about jam-packed factory-production lines, not enough hand sanitizer and crowded lines for worker bathrooms.
A Tyson spokesman said the company is committed to hearing out employees’ concerns, and maintains an anonymous ethics helpline. He said problems with hand sanitizer and bathroom lines haven’t been raised.
Tyson, which produces one in 5 pounds of all beef, pork and chicken produced daily in the U.S., said it has seen a small number of employees test positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The company has directed employees who might have had contact with infected colleagues to self-quarantine, has notified other workers of positive cases and is checking workers’ temperatures before shifts, the spokesman said. In some plant break rooms, colored dots have been placed on chairs to help Tyson staff sit the recommended distance apart.
Experts said they don’t worry about transmitting the virus through food, but they say workplace conditions risk creating additional coronavirus hot spots and could potentially slow food and other production.
In Wharton, N.J., workers at a Refresco bottling plant walked out on March 21 after a manager berated an employee who was worried about the coronavirus and reported himself as feeling ill, a worker at the plant said. On March 27, the workers tried to deliver a letter addressing their concerns to the human -resources department, but it wasn’t accepted and they had to email it to upper management. Refresco, a publicly traded beverage company based in the Netherlands, is one of the largest independent bottlers for retailers.
Refresco spokeswoman Antonella Sacconi said the company is taking all necessary precautions and is following and in some cases exceeding government guidelines by providing employees with face masks and other protective equipment. She said the company has issued a $1 an hour “crisis bonus” for all its North American employees.
“All concerns raised by employees have been addressed and resolved,” Ms. Sacconi said. “Refresco will continue to do everything we can to keep all employees safe and healthy.”
Some governors have issued guidelines directing businesses with essential workers to comply with social-distancing measures when possible. About half the states have their own workplace-safety enforcement; the rest relies on the federal government’s OSHA.
In Nevada, which runs its own workplace-safety enforcement agency, administrator Jess Lankford recently warned construction companies in a letter that the agency would conduct random inspections to ensure they are complying with a governor’s mandate for social distancing.
“It is visibly obvious that employees are still being directed/allowed to work in close proximity (less than 6 feet of separation) to other staff,” Mr. Lankford wrote.
A spokeswoman for Nevada’s Department of Business and Industry said the safety agency is investigating and might issue citations for violations of published coronavirus safety guidelines.
Federal OSHA has taken a largely hands-off approach to coronavirus safety enforcement, its communications indicate. It recently released a guidance outlining steps that employers could take to protect a workplace from an outbreak, including increasing ventilation and installing physical barriers. But it stressed it was just advisory. OSHA standards don’t specifically cover infectious-disease protections, although there are basic requirements for bathrooms, sanitation and some protective gear.
Some former OSHA officials said the agency could be doing more, including requiring that companies comply with a general standard to provide a safe workplace.
“If OSHA is playing any role in the response, it is so low key as to be invisible,” said David Michaels, who ran the agency under the Obama administration.
OSHA didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Some calls for OSHA action have gone unheeded. Tim Bell, a worker advocate with Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, complained about worker-safety conditions in the area to an Illinois OSHA official. OSHA Area Director Angie Loftus responded that the regulatory agency couldn’t do anything to enforce the best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In an email to Mr. Bell, Ms. Loftus said she had been receiving complaints every day for weeks about employers failing to follow the guidelines. “These recommended measures are not enforceable by OSHA since they are guidance and not OSHA law,” according to the email Mr. Bell said he received from Ms. Loftus that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Ms. Loftus and OSHA didn’t respond to requests for comment about the email.
In a Voyant Beauty factory in Countryside, Ill., several workers employed by third-party staffing agencies said they were alarmed by the lack of protective gear and the close quarters on the company’s production lines and in a dining hall. The company makes disinfectants such as hand soaps and is considered essential.
The workers said that they used the same touch-screen devices to clock in every day, and that these weren’t sanitized despite being touched by hundreds of workers daily.
“People are piled up on top of each other working, and there is no protection,” said Eduardo Antunez, a worker in the Voyant Beauty factory. “I use my gloves and I change them often, but this factory hasn’t taken any precautionary steps.”
Voyant didn’t comment. There have been no known infections at the factory, according to workers there.
Meantime, the health implications of outbreaks from plants remain the broader worry, some worker-safety advocates said. Some workplaces house hundreds and sometimes thousands of employees in close quarters.
“That’s a major risk for the people working in the plants themselves, for the continued food production, and for public health,” said Darcy Tromanhauser of Nebraska Appleseed, a nonprofit that works with meat-plant workers.
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