The audiences are always ahead: Will Packer Productions

Author : kimporebar
Publish Date : 2021-05-22 18:34:19
The audiences are always ahead: Will Packer Productions

Pedro Quiroz was the last migrant worker to board the bus. The 77-year-old walked slowly and breathed heavily as a co-worker helped him get on. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and someone rushed to find him one.

The migrant workers were leaving a labor camp in the Wisconsin town of Gillett where they had lived for four months. Their employer, a green bean canning plant, had abruptly closed early for the season after numerous workers contracted COVID-19. Now, they were heading home to Texas and Mexico.

The bus left the camp early in the morning and stopped several hours later at a gas station in Illinois. Before the bus got back on the road, passengers noticed Quiroz wasn’t conscious. He lay on his window seat at the back of the bus, his body still. He didn’t appear to be breathing.

A bus driver called 911, but paramedics couldn’t save him. He was pronounced dead, and his body was taken out in a bag on a stretcher. Anxious passengers, including some who weren’t migrant workers, stood watching in the parking lot.

The drivers cleaned the inside of the bus and told passengers to get back on. The bus continued south.

Three days later, another worker who had been on the bus was hospitalized in Texas with COVID-19. Soon after, his daughter and granddaughter were also hospitalized with the disease.

The women survived. The worker didn’t. 

In less than two months last fall, at least 11 migrant workers at the green bean facility, operated by Seneca Foods, died of COVID-19 complications, making it one of the deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. food processing industry. One in 14 migrant workers at the facility died after company officials and government regulators failed to take critical measures to protect employees.

An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network, shows that neither Seneca Foods nor local health officials tested all workers — even those living in company barracks — or interviewed them to do contact tracing. The company also didn’t monitor workers for most obvious symptoms or isolate all those who became ill.

The Journal Sentinel tracked down 22 workers, talked with 21 family members and reviewed hundreds of pages of public records to document what happened to workers of one of America’s largest packaged vegetable companies, which produces the popular Green Valley and Libby's brand green beans.

Many of the affected workers were in their 60s or 70s and had been coming north to work in the plant for years. Most lived in barracks in a labor camp next to the plant.

Worker Martin Pedraza, 68, said he helped his brother, Mauricio, 66, move out of a barrack where some sick workers were isolated. Inside, workers lying in bed looked pale.

“I’ve never seen so much sickness,” he said.

Mauricio later died in Missouri on his way home to Texas.

Seneca Foods isolated some workers at a nearby Super 8 motel. Numerous workers said they were not seen by doctors or nurses unless they became extremely ill. Most spoke little English, making it difficult to seek care on their own.

José Hernández, 62, said he collapsed on his motel room floor and was unable to move for hours. When he heard a company employee outside his door, words wouldn’t come out: “I couldn’t tell her ‘help me.’”

Christen Arispe said she begged a company recruiter to take her father, 71, to a clinic after he spoke incoherently to her on a video call while isolated in the motel. The recruiter downplayed the symptoms and told her that her father’s test results had just come back negative, she said. It took about 20 hours before Arispe’s father was taken to a hospital.

Three days later, he died of COVID-19.

“They could have done something,” she said.

After her father died, the company closed the plant and arranged for a commercial bus company to pick up workers who needed transportation home. These included several workers who said they had not been tested for the virus, putting others at risk.

When Quiroz died on the bus, no one stopped it from continuing its journey, transporting possibly exposed passengers hundreds of miles away and allowing them to get onto different public buses.

The true toll of the outbreak might extend far beyond the plant. Family members of Juan Hector Ruvalcaba said he left the plant before it shut to escape COVID-19. But they believe he brought the disease with him to his home in suburban Monterrey, Mexico, and passed it on to two of his brothers.

Although there is no definitive evidence of when and how the brothers contracted COVID-19, all three died of the disease within a three-week period, according to their death certificates.

The Gillett food processing facility is one of more than 20 Seneca Foods plants in the U.S., according to the company’s website. Last year, the publicly traded company, based in Marion, New York, employed 1,800 migrant workers in Wisconsin, according to state records.

Seneca’s net earnings tripled during the nine months ending in December 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. Company officials attributed an increase in sales to people stocking up and consuming their product due to the pandemic. At the same time, several workers and relatives told the Journal Sentinel they faced hospital bills or burial costs they can’t afford.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the plant in Gillett in December, after the migrant workers had left. Agency spokeswoman Rhonda Burke said the facility was following guidance by OHSA and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time of the inspection. The migrant camp was closed, so OSHA couldn’t check it.

Matt Henschler, a Seneca Foods senior vice president, and Timothy Benjamin, chief financial officer, declined to be interviewed.

A statement provided by Henschler said: “We cannot explain the virulence of the outbreak but based on the steps taken, we do not believe our workplace was a source of spread.

 “We worked with public health officials following CDC guidelines and collaboratively used the best information available. We believe we consistently acted appropriately in the face of a difficult and unprecedented public health situation — with safety in mind — and we are saddened to have had our workplace impacted by the pandemic in this way.”

Benjamin said the company modified workers’ housing in accordance with CDC guidelines and worked with health officials to respond to positive cases, identify people impacted and provide follow-up care.

He said some employees arranged for the commercial bus to travel home. But a Seneca Foods representative told a state inspector that the company requested the bus, according to state records. Numerous workers told the Journal Sentinel they thought the company arranged for the bus, though employees paid for their tickets.

Neither Seneca Foods nor local and state health officials have disclosed the number of positive COVID-19 cases or deaths among plant workers. Business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has sued to prevent state health officials from releasing the number of cases tied to specific businesses. The Journal Sentinel is fighting the group’s lawsuit in court.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said she couldn’t respond to questions because a temporary court injunction related to the lawsuit blocks department officials from releasing information about business outbreaks.

Michael Reimer, health department director in Oconto County, home to the Seneca facility, said his staff acted appropriately with respect to its contact tracing and mitigation efforts at the plant. To protect the privacy of infected workers, he said, he could not answer specific questions.

In March, the state Department of Workforce Development issued a new rule requiring migrant camp operators to make “reasonable efforts” to isolate exposed workers — not just those who have symptoms. Companies are also required to report if they have plans to test workers before they return home — but the firms are not actually required to make such plans or carry them out.

Rod Ritcherson, spokesman for UMOS, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that provided economic assistance to Seneca workers, said the tragedy must not be repeated.

“Something went terribly wrong,” he said. “We need to find out what happened so that this type of situation does not happen again.”

‘I prefer to die at home’
It’s unclear exactly how the Seneca Foods workers got COVID-19. But the virus can spread quickly in migrant camps, where numerous workers sleep under the same roof.

When dozens of workers from Texas and Mexico arrived in Wisconsin in early June, they all got tested. No one had the virus, the employees remember being told, and they started to work about three weeks after arriving.

Most migrant workers lived in the company-operated camp. They were housed in five barracks about 90-foot-by-30-foot next to the plant. Up to 30 workers could sleep in two rows of seven or eight bunk beds. They shared toilets, sinks and showers within each barrack.  

Some said the beds were six feet apart or more; others said three to four feet. The company put up plastic dividers, similar to bathroom curtains, along the sides of their bunks, employees said. One said he cut black plastic trash bags and taped them around his bed.

The company provided plenty of face masks, workers said, and employees were to use them inside the barracks except when sleeping or bathing. Despite the importance of good indoor ventilation to avoid the spread of the virus, the windows in the barracks were always closed, workers said, in part because the air conditioning was running.

At the plant, workers were screened daily for fever, but they were never asked about symptoms, more than a dozen employees said. It’s unclear how effective the temperature checks were; none of those who told the Journal Sentinel they tested positive said they were flagged in that screening.

The workers weren’t in a bubble. At the plant, they worked with people who lived in the area and weren’t migrant workers, increasing their chances of exposure.

With 10- to 14-hour work shifts seven days a week, the workers had little free time. When they ventured out of the camp, they sometimes shopped at Walmart and went to a local bank to cash checks. Some ate indoors at restaurants or visited a tribal casino, though they said all casino customers wore masks and socially distanced. 

By August, three other Seneca Foods plants, two in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin, had COVID-19 outbreaks, according to news reports and announcements by local authorities.

Pedro Cabrera, a worker at the Gillett plant, feared the virus would hit his camp. He said nine new employees who had arrived during the season and slept in his barrack told him they hadn’t been tested or quarantined before settling in the camp.

Cabrera said he brought his concerns to Alfonso Portillo, a Seneca Foods recruiter who signed up workers in Texas and handled complaints. Cabrera said he repeatedly asked Portillo to test the new workers, but Portillo told him they wouldn’t because they didn’t have symptoms. Three other employees recalled Portillo saying the workers wouldn't be tested.

Portillo declined to answer questions from the Journal Sentinel. Benjamin, the Seneca Foods official, said all seasonal employees were tested upon arrival and quarantined pending results. Wisconsin didn't require camp operators to test migrant workers when they arrived.

Frustrated by what he perceived to be the company’s lack of action, Cabrera quit and went home to Texas. He said he remembers thinking: “At 69, I prefer to die at home than to die here, far away.”

Dozens of other workers stayed. Earning $10 to $15 an hour with plenty of overtime, their paychecks were a lifeline for the year. And some didn’t believe the virus could wreak havoc.

Then, in late September, workers started to test positive.

A public health nurse for the county asked a Seneca human resources administrator about any potential close contacts of a worker who had tested positive, emails show.

The administrator told the nurse that because the employee worked alone and the company had taken safety measures, such as masks and social distancing, the firm didn’t think he could have had any close contacts at work during the two days he worked while possibly infectious.

Employees continued to fall ill, and fast. On Oct. 8, a plant manager told a state inspector that about seven workers were hospitalized, some in critical condition, according to state records.

Still, nearly all migrant employees who spoke with the Journal Sentinel said they were unaware of any contact tracing efforts. Eighteen workers, including many who tested positive, said no one told them they may have been exposed, even if they lived and slept in the same barracks as others who tested positive.

County contact tracers talked to some who tested positive, according to emails, but 11 workers told the Journal Sentinel they tested positive and that no one asked them about close contacts.

The company and health authorities also didn’t test all workers, including some who were housed with COVID-positive employees, to determine who should be separated.

The Wisconsin health department suggests local health authorities consider testing all workers when 2% or more of employees at a facility are infected, depending on other factors. But much more than 2% of Seneca’s workforce tested positive, according to employee interviews.

Instead of testing, the company frequently relied on workers to self-report symptoms to determine who should be isolated.

It was well-known at the time that people without symptoms can spread COVID-19. In addition, both county and company representatives knew some workers weren’t immediately reporting symptoms, which could have contributed to the spread of the disease, according to an email in which a county health employee summarized a conversation with a Seneca Foods representative.

Several workers said they didn’t report symptoms immediately because they didn’t think they had COVID-19 or they wanted to return home.

A man who had been sick for days in October kept sleeping in one of the barracks — not isolated — until an ambulance took him to a hospital. By then, he had trouble breathing and was talking incoherently, according to a 911 call and interviews. The worker later died of COVID-19, his son said.

As more workers became sick, some were isolated in one barrack. The barrack was divided in half by a wall, an employee said. Workers waiting for results were supposed to be on one side, and those who tested positive on the other. But workers, the employee said, were mixed together, and all workers shared toilets and showers.

Seneca’s Benjamin said known infected workers were quarantined separately from those who weren’t infected.

In one six-day period in October, ambulances responded to the isolation barrack three times, according to 911 audio recordings and related records.

Mauricio Pedraza was isolated in the barrack after he spiked a fever flagged in the plant screening, said his brother Martin, who worked at the facility but rented a home in town.

Mauricio didn’t want to stay in the barracks, surrounded by the disease. So Martin decided to have him move in with him. When Martin entered the barracks to help his brother move out, some workers appeared weak. Others urged him to leave immediately. One asked him if he could bring them medicine.

Mauricio’s test results came back positive. A few days later, Martin was driving with him back home to Texas when Mauricio felt ill in Missouri. Martin took him to a hospital, where he was admitted and couldn’t see visitors.

Martin said he had to leave his brother behind. Martin’s wife, who had also been working at the Seneca plant and was following him in another car, was ill, too. He wanted to continue home with her. 

She recovered, but Mauricio died three weeks later at age 66 of COVID-19.

“I still dream of it,” Martin said. “I blame myself for leaving him there.”

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