Collaborative Central Valley
Using interviews with officials, workers and organizers, as well as press releases and news reports, Maria Esquinca created a timeline of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Foster Farms plant in Livingston, where close to 400 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and eight have passed away.
On April 24, a sanitation worker at the Foster Farms Livingston plant tests positive for COVID-19, according to Dr. Salvador Sandoval, health officer for the Merced County Department of Public Health.
“El primer caso que tuvieron ellos fue el 24 de abril,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval. “[Del departamento] de sanitización, de limpieza.”
Rosa Lopez, who has worked at the Foster Farms Livingston plant for 33 years said that workers started hearing rumors about people getting sick in April.
“Nos empezamos a dar cuenta en abril. Empezaron los rumores que había casos ahí en la compañía por los lavadores, entonces empezaron a haber muchos enfermos,” dijo Lopez.
“We started finding out in April, rumors started floating around that there was confirmed cases from the sanitation workers, then we started seeing a lot of sick people,” Lopez said in Spanish.
Jesús Ruiz who has worked at the Foster Farms Livingston plant for 29 years, said he first heard about sanitation workers getting sick in May.
“En mayo es cuando me di cuenta de las primeras personas que se enfermaron. Eran unos lavadores los que salieron,” dijo Ruiz.
Two more sanitation workers test positive for COVID-19 from May 9 to May 10, according to Dr. Sandoval.
“Y luego del día 9 al día 10 resultaron positivos dos personas más en sanitización,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval.
He adds that Foster Farms administrators and the company doctor assured MCDPH officials that the cleaning crew did not have direct contact with workers in the processing line.
“Entonces en platicar con la administración y el doctor de la compañía ellos nos aseguraron que no tenían contacto directo con los trabajadores de línea.”
The Mayor of the City of Livingston, Gurpal Samra, begins to get calls from workers at the Foster Farms Livingston plant in late May, early June.
“I started getting calls from Foster Farms employees saying that they would find out that the coworker has Covid, but no one tells him anything,” Samra said. “And that ‘they don’t tell us anything. We don’t know why they’re going home, and then another person gets sick, and another person gets sick.’ So, they felt that Foster Farms is not doing what they think is best for the employees. They were doing what they thought was best for their bottom line.”
The United Farmworkers Union begins to give out masks to Faster Farms workers in May, says Erika Navarrete, vice president of the UFW. The company had still not done so.
The first masks Foster Farms gave out to workers were bandanas.
“La primera repartición que vimos de mascarillas fue en mayo. Después también la compañía dio unas bandanas, inclusive eran bandanas como paños amarillas,” dijo Navarrete.
Mayor Samra says workers are taken aback by the bandanas. “They basically gave their employees like a scarf. People were quite taken aback, that [this is] a multibillion-dollar company and this is all they can do to protect the employees? Is to get them some scarves? Where are the proper masks?” Samra said.
Workers from the processing line, a separate department, start getting infected with COVID-19.
“El primer caso que vimos en línea fue el día 4 de junio,” dice el Dr. Sandoval.
“The first case in the processing line was the fourth of June,” says Dr. Sandoval.
There’s an outbreak in the processing line.
“On the ninth, what we observed was that in reality they had an outbreak in the plant,” said Dr. Sandoval.
“Y el día nueve ya lo que vimos es que en realidad ya tenían un brote dentro de la planta,” dijo El Dr. Sandoval.
An outbreak is declared when three or more employees from the same work site test positive for COVID-19 within the span of two weeks
Additionally, Foster Farms delays their communication with officials from the MCDPH regarding the number of line workers who test positive for COVID-19. “They would take a while to give us the information,” Dr. Sandoval said.
“Nos dieron información retroactiva de la línea,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval. “Tardaban en darnos la información.”
MCDPH officials visit Foster Farms and makes several recommendations including expanding the spaces for workers in break rooms, and greater testing.
Dr. Sandoval said that even though workers had masks and there were plexiglass dividers in some areas of the plant, there were still rooms where workers were very close together.
“Por ejemplo, donde se van registrando ya para el comienzo del día, que se juntan muchas veces menos de seis pies, o los lockers, y también baños, y luego en el break room. Y el peligro principal que vimos es que en el break room los trabajadores se quitan la mascarilla, claro, para comer. Pero, luego lo que vimos es de que caminaban al microondas sin máscaras y platicaban con otras personas esperando que se calentara su comida, que es un riesgo alto.”
“For example, where they check-in at the beginning of the day, a lot of times they would gather within less than six feet of distance of each other, or the lockers, also the restrooms, and then the break room. The biggest danger we saw was that in the break room workers would take off their mask to eat, but then what we saw is that they would walk to the microwave without a mask, and they would talk to other people while they waited for their food to heat up, which is a big risk.”
Jesús Ruiz said that the lunchroom in his department was very small and it was impossible to socially distance.
“Se amontona más la gente en esa hora ahí por el motivo que le digo, que la gente entra a calentar su lonche allí,” dijo Ruiz. “Y mucha gente se sale para afuera, pero en este ratito anda la gente caminando allí. No, no hay ninguna distancia social en ese momento.”
The virus has spread to other departments, 21 workers test positive for COVID-19, according to Dr. Sandoval.
“Going into the 30th, we saw that there were 21 cases in several departments, but the problem is that we got the information late,” said Dr. Sandoval. “Even though there were 21 cases, we only knew about one case in the other department.”
“Ya entrando el 30, ya vimos que había 21 casos en varios departamentos, pero el problema es que nos daban la información tarde,” el Dr. Sandoval. “Y a pesar de que había 21 casos, nomas sabíamos de uno de los casos en diferentes departamentos.”
68 workers test positive for COVID-19. MCDPH officials begin to receive more information from Foster Farms, according to Dr. Sandoval
“Ya entrando en julio, ya nos dieron más información y había 68 casos,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval.
MCDPH officials meet with Foster Farms and they recommended testing all workers in the affected departments, according to Dr. Sandoval.
“El 13 de julio tuvimos una reunión con la administración de Foster Farms y luego la administración del Departamento de Salud de Merced y de ahí recomendamos que se hicieran pruebas para todos los trabajadores en las líneas afectadas,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval.
“By the 17th, there was 99 cases,” said Dr. Sandoval.
“Para el día 17 ya había 99 casos,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval.
A Foster Farms worker passes away from COVID-19. MCDPH officials find out about the death through the family, not through Foster Farms, according to Dr. Sandoval.
“La primera muerte fue el 21 y se nos reportó por medio de familiares, no por la compañía,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval.
A second worker from Foster Farms passes away. MCDPH officials are again notified through the family, not the company, according to Dr. Sandoval.
“El 22 nos dimos cuenta de otra muerte y también fue de parte de familiares y no de la empresa,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval.
MCDPH officials speak with the company doctor. Out of the workers who have been tested, 29 percent are positive for COVID-19. “A high percentage,” said Dr. Sandoval.
“En la primera ronda de pruebas y de las pruebas que hicieron, el 29 porciento eran positivas, entonces, alto porcentaje. A pesar de que no estaban haciendo estudios de todos como nosotros pedimos,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval.
MCDPH officials give Foster Farms more recommendations.
By late July, Foster Farms officials tested less than 10 percent of workers within the largest impacted department.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the state agency in charge of regulating workplace conditions, visits Foster Farms. MCDPH officials become aware of a third worker dying, according to Dr. Sandoval.
“Ellos [Cal/OSHA] vieron que las recomendaciones del 29 no se habían seguido. Entonces les avisamos a la compañía de eso. Y ese mismo día nos dimos cuenta de otra muerte. El siguiente día la cuarta muerte, y el cinco, otra muerte,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval.
MCDPH officials become aware of a fourth worker dying.
MCDPH officials become aware of a fifth worker dying.
County health officials issue a directive to Foster Farms to test all workers in every facility where outbreaks are occurring.
MCDPH officials issue a second directive to Foster Farms to take measures to contain the outbreaks, including immediate testing of exposed temporary workers and other protective measures.
MCDPH orders Foster Farms to shut down until it is able to safely reopen. Foster Farms does not shut down.
In an interview with Radio Bilingüe, Mayor Samra, says he has received calls from workers saying that they are still working shoulder to shoulder. Months after the first cases of COVID-19 at Foster Farms. “A lot of employees have called and said this is still not enough, that they’re still working shoulder to shoulder, and that they need to separate more between each employee.”
358 Foster Farms employees have test positive for COVID-19, and eight employees passed away.
“Foster Farms Livingston Facility accounts for a significant number of countywide deaths in those under the age of 65 (18 percent), total County deaths (7 percent), and deaths within the City of Livingston (4 out of 10),” says a MCDPH press release.
MCDPH issues a 48-hr delay, revising its original order. The Fresno Bee reports the extension followed a call from the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s for Food Safety.
When asked by Radio Bilingüe if the call from the Under Secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Food Safety influenced the 48-hour extension, Dr. Sandoval said “yes.” When asked why the Under Secretary would ask for an extension, Dr. Sandoval said he thinks it was a favor for the company. “They are used to getting what they want through their political connections,” he said.
“Pienso que fue favor para la compañía,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval. “Están acostumbrados, por medio de sus redes políticas de conseguir lo que buscan.”
MCDPH and Foster Farms officials meet again.
392 Foster Farms employees have tested positive, and eight have passed away.
MCDPH officials issue a revised order that calls for a six day closure and the partial shutdown of Foster Farms beginning on Tuesday Sep.1 until the evening of Monday Sep. 7. The plant is required to do a deep cleanse and to test all employees.
Lopez says she’s been greatly affected by the death of her friend, one of eight employees to pass away.
“Mucho por la pérdida de mi amiga, mucho me afectó. Y saber que han muerto más personas y no había pasado nada,” dijo Lopez.
“I was really affected by the loss of my friend, it really affected me, and knowing there had been more deaths and nothing had happened,” Lopez said in Spanish.
The UFW holds a virtual press conference and announces they will boycott Foster Farms if the company fails to protect its workers.
“¿Cuántas muertes más quieren? ¿Cuántos muertos más para que ellos piensen algo? ¿Para que la compañía proteja a sus trabajadores? ¿Cuántos más?” dijo Martha Vera, su esposo, que fue chofer durante 27 años para Foster Farms, fue uno de los 8 fallecidos.
“How many more deaths do they want? How many more until they think of doing something? So that the company protects their workers? How many more?” said Martha Vera crying during the press conference, her husband who was a truck driver for 27 years at Foster Farms was one of the eight workers to pass away.
As of Sept. 4, six more workers test positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases to 398, and eight deaths, according to Dr. Sandoval.
“Se nos reportaron esta semana, parece que seis más. Y ninguna muerte más,” dijo el Dr. Sandoval.
A Los Angeles Times reveals that Foster Farms officials reported just one COVID-19 death from Jan. 1 through Aug. 13 to Cal/OSHA, yet a company memo from Aug. 24 stated that nine employees had died companywide. In the same story, Ira Brill, vice president of communications for Foster Farms, blamed the outbreak on California’s reopening efforts.
Ruiz says he is afraid to go back to work, but he has to make a living.
“Siento miedo, siento tristeza por todo lo que está pasando,” Ruiz dijo. “Todo depende de ellos, de que tengan compasión de la gente y sepan que por toda nuestra gente, ellos están donde están. Que cuiden lo que tienen.”
Ruiz and Lopez say they want Foster Farms workers to get a $2 an hour increase in their wages for working during a pandemic, for a total of $15 an hour.
According to a press release sent out by Lorna Bush, Senior Vice President of Fineman PR, Foster Farms conducted more than 4,800 COVID-19 tests through Labor Day weekend. No updates on the case count are released.
Navarrete says Foster Farms is not sharing test results with workers and is only sending the results to county health officials, during a press conference hosted by the UFW.
“Foster Farms no parece compartir los resultados y pruebas directamente con los trabajadores, sino que envía los resultados a funcionarios de salud del condado,” dijo Navarrete. “El Condado, le dice a la UFW que los trabajadores deben de solicitar a la empresa los resultados.”
MCDPH officials told the UFW that workers must solicit their test results from Foster Farms.
State Sen. María Elena Durazo, who comes from a family of farmworkers joins the press conference and condemns Foster Farms for “violating their legal obligations” when they reported one death to Cal/OSHA.
“And by saying that they’re relying on two doctors during this pandemic…a staff veterinarian, and the other is a food safety consultant. That’s not the kind of attention that those human beings inside the plant deserve and should have,” Durazo says.