On Monday, the United Farm Workers (UFW) held a virtual news conference —along with the Jakarta Movement Punjabi Sikh organization and Faith in the Valley— pledging to boycott Foster Farms, the poultry processing plant in Livingston, California, after nine workers died from the novel coronavirus and 358 tested positive.
The Merced County Health Department had made several recommendations, including recommendations to conduct widespread testing, to Foster Farms during a survey back in June when the outbreak started.
According to the UFW, Foster Farms did not comprehensively follow many of the recommendations.
“United Farm Workers has tried to work as a team with Foster Farms since the early days of the pandemic. Until fairly recently, we have tried to take a collaborative approach with the company as we felt this was the fastest way for us to help protect as many workers as possible,” said Elizabeth Strater, UFW’s Director of Alternative Organizing. “As time has gone on, and especially since late July, we have been increasingly disturbed to realize that the company was not going to meet us or the workers halfway.”
A vigil for the nine workers who died was held on Thursday night.
According to an August 26 order from Merced County Health Department telling Foster Farms to close its facilities for not complying to the previous recommendations, “of the approximate 2,600 workers at the Livingston facility, 13.7 percent of the workforce has received a positive test result based on worker self-reporting.” However, this figure does not represent the extent of the outbreak in the facility because Foster Farms did not conduct universal testing.
“There are hundreds of families now affected by sickness. There are at least nine families grieving the death of people they love. Still, Foster Farms is delaying the closure of the facility and we still have not been provided clear details by Foster on the testing performed to date,” Strater said.
Martha Vera’s husband was a trucker for Foster Farms for 27 years. A few days before he passed away from COVID-19 complications, he told Martha that people were infected onsite, and that they were still working at the plant.
“I just want to say that this company, they obviously don’t care about the workers they only care about the money. I have worked there for 26 years,” Vera said during the conference. “I hope that someone can tell Foster Farms that they need to take action. How many more workers need to die before they are able to finally take action to protect employees.”
José de Piña Tovar, who has been working at Foster Farms for 15 years, said he and his wife were infected while working in the plant back in June during the conference.
“Foster Farms should have a clean plant. They need to provide the necessary equipment to protect us. I suggest that everyone working in the plant needs to be tested. At least every eight days, to ensure that we are all safe from COVID-19,” said Piña Tovar, who is still recovering from the virus.
During the conference, UFW members pledged to support a boycott if Foster Farms continues failing to provide a safe workplace, which includes complying with the county order to close the entire Livingston facility, testing all workers (including cleaning crews) with public results and weekly testing once the facility reopens, providing paid leave while the plant is closed and “quarantine pay,” supplying hazard pay, and to provide PPE equipment to all employees.
The company released a statement saying in part that “the Central Valley in California, where many of Foster Farms’ facilities are located, has been especially hard-hit. Foster Farms is initiating a comprehensive testing program across all of its California facilities beginning on August 12, at its main Livingston plant. Foster Farms tested nearly 2,900 employees and found a COVID-19 prevalence of less than 1%. We are encouraged by these results but recognize there is even more to do and will begin additional testing and sanitation this week.”
County officials ordered the facility to close on August 27, but Foster Farms delayed its closure, asking workers to come back to work the next day. It closed its main plant on September 1, but other parts of Foster Farms are still open.
Diego Jesús Bartesaghi Mena is a 2020 Latino Rebels summer correspondent. A recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, he is based in Newark, NJ and tweets from @bartesaghi_mena.