'The distancing is non-existent': Seafood processing workers in Massachusetts speak out about unsafe working conditions amid coronavirus

AP Photo/Steven SenneIn this Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 photo fishing vessels are docked in New Bedford Harbour, in New Bedford, Mass.
  • A group of current and former seafood processing workers in Massachusetts began sending letters on Monday to more than 30 seafood processing companies and temp agencies in the area demanding better working conditions amid the coronavirus.
  • Business Insider spoke to three seafood processing workers who said they lack protective equipment and that social distancing measures aren’t being taken seriously at their facilities.
  • Mirna Pacaja, who works at Atlantic Cape Fisheries in Fall River, Massachusetts, said they sell to grocers including Costco and Stop & Shop.
  • “We are essential workers, we are the ones processing food so consumers can eat,” said Juan Carlos Carranza, who works at the seafood company Marder Trawling in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “And that’s why we need to be healthy and safe so this food can reach people’s tables.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If Mirna Pacaja could send one message to people across the country during the coronavirus pandemic, it would be this: only go outside if it’s necessary. If not, she said, please stay home for the sake of other’s health.

Until recently, Pacaja, a 37-year-old mother of three in Providence, Rhode Island, wasn’t one of the people able to just stay home. She works as a seafood processing worker in Fall River, Massachusetts, for the seafood company Atlantic Capes Fisheries. Through late March, when she stopped working at the plant to take care of her 7-year-old daughter, she was working up to 11 and a half hour days processing and packaging scallops eventually sent to grocers like Costco and Stop & Shop. She is currently home without pay.

Seafood processing workers like Pacaja, similar to food manufacturer and agricultural workers across the country, are considered essential by the federal government amid the pandemic, with many continuing to go to work – despite the risks – to bring food to people’s tables.

Pacaja told Business Insider in Spanish, through a translator, that she was afraid she could contract the novel virus while working at Atlantic Capes Fisheries. On March 20, her last day at the plant, there were more than 17,000 cases of coronavirus across the country, and 413 cases in Massachusetts, according to a story published by The New York Times at the time.

While there are at least 140 to 150 workers at the processing plant, according to Pacaja, she said social distancing guidelines weren’t being followed and there were no masks. Workers still had to touch machines to clock in and out, and she wasn’t sure those machines were being disinfected, she added.

Mirna Pacaja pictureMirna PacajaMirna Pacaja

Paula de Leon, a 37-year-old in Providence who is currently working at Atlantic Capes Fisheries, echoed Pacaja’s account. She said, through a translator, that they continue to work closely together and she can feel the person next to her breath. While they now receive masks when they enter the work area, those only arrived last week. Prior to that, she said the company wouldn’t give them masks when they asked for them.

De Leon said that last month, the company even got upset with two workers who were wearing masks because they had a cough. “They said that if you were wearing a mask, it meant that you were sick. They got upset and told us not to wear masks until this week,” she said.

A similar scenario is playing out at other seafood processing plants in the area. Juan Carlos Carranza, a 30-year-old who works at the seafood company Marder Trawling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, around half an hour from Fall River, told Business Insider that prior to this week, he and his colleagues still didn’t have masks, despite around 40-to-50 people working in close proximity at the facility. He works side-by-side with others, often in pairs and very close to one another, as they filet and clean monkfish, dogfish, and other fresh fish. He said they also use their fingers to clock in and out.

Adrian Ventura, director of an immigrant nonprofit called Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, told Business Insider that while workers at Marder finally received masks on Monday, they are only given one to last the entire week.

“We’re very afraid. There are lots of people in the company that are nervous and afraid and they start talking about the consequences of working so closely together,” Carranza told Business Insider through a translator. He added that he doesn’t have health insurance. “If we stay home, we can’t make any money and we know there’s always something to pay: rent, utilities, food. So, what we do is go out to work, we hope things are ok, and we also take steps to pressure our employer to change conditions at work.”

Workers sent letters to companies demanding better conditions

Seafood workers2Adrian VenturaSeafood processing workers

Carranza, Pacaja, de Leon, and a group of other current and former seafood processing workers are doing just that. On Monday, they began sending letters to more than 30 seafood processing companies and temp agencies in the area demanding better working conditions for the sake of public health. Some of their demands include making sure workers who need to stay home can stay home, providing personal protective equipment and training, maintaining at least six feet between workers, and ensuring adequate cleaning and disinfection.

“The distancing is non-existent. When I’m working next to somebody, I automatically bump into the person I’m working with, for example my arm touches the arm of the person next to me. When I am in front of somebody, I can feel the person breathing, so in that sense I am very worried,” Pacaja said about her experience at the facility. “There’s lots of people working there, and I know that we can get sick. I’m worried about myself, but I’m also worried about the other workers and their families.”

There are currently 1,508 confirmed coronavirus cases in Bristol County, where Fall River and New Bedford are located, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. In total, Massachusetts now has more than 29,000 confirmed cases, making it the third highest state by cases in the US behind New York and New Jersey.

Thomas Smith, the co-founder and executive director of Justice at Work, a Boston legal nonprofit that supports low-wage workers and their organising efforts, told Business Insider that some workers have been told to follow new social distancing rules at processing plants, only to see those rules immediately ignored by managers. He said that there are at least 2,000 seafood processing workers in the area, which comprises of Massachusetts’ South Coast into parts of Rhode Island.

“I’ve had conversations where workers talk about how they’re continuing to work side-by-side, so it’s like basically elbow to elbow or as much space as you need to clean the fish,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of mixed messages for the workers because, on the one hand, they’re being told by the governor or public health experts not to leave the house and if they do to maintain six feet distance from everyone, and then to go to work in that kind of situation, you feel like you’re putting yourself and your family in a lot of danger.”

LobstersAP Photo/Robert F. BukatyLobsters are packed for shipment in Maine.

In a statement to Business Insider, Atlantic Capes Fisheries said “since the earliest days following Federal and state declarations of emergency with respect to the COVID-19 crisis, Atlantic Capes Fisheries (ACF) has been proactive in following public health guidelines and has taken appropriate precautions to ensure the safety of its employees, and the integrity and safety of its products.”

Atlantic Capes Fisheries said it has implemented a pandemic control plan, and that staff meets regularly to continuously improve their coronavirus response as new guidance becomes available; that the company has communicated, and implemented, the guidelines from the state and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to employees; and that, in accordance with food safety standards, masks and other protective equipment have been routinely in use in appropriate production departments for years.

“Masks have been available to Atlantic Capes employees since before the COVID-19 crisis began, and mask usage at our facilities has been mandatory since the beginning of April,” the company said in the statement, adding that they have taken actions like having staggered lunches and breaks to limit the number of employees in close contact at any given time, adding stylus pens to the time clocks, so employees can clock in and out while wearing disposable gloves, and implementing measures to ensure facilities are regularly cleaned and common areas regularly disinfected.

De Leon, who is currently working at Atlantic Capes Fisheries, confirmed that the company recently began doing staggered breaks. But, she said that prior to last week, there were no masks for workers. She added that while there are now stylus pens attached to the time clocks, she still doesn’t feel safe because workers are grabbing them with their hands and aren’t using gloves when they clock in.

While they receive gloves and masks in the areas where they work, they don’t have access to them in other parts of the facility, like where they eat. She said that is where the time clocks are located.

When questioned on whether the facility is being regularly disinfected, de Leon said she’s never seen any cleaning efforts at the plant. “That’s not true,” she said when asked about whether the company is routinely cleaning during coronavirus. “When would they do it? We work from 6 am to 7 pm, when would they do it?”

Costco declined to comment. In a statement to Business Insider, Stop & Shop said: “we engage in regular dialogue with our suppliers, and Atlantic Cape[s] Fisheries is certified by the Global Food Safety Initiative, which means they adhere to best practices relative to safe food production.”

“There is no evidence to suggest that food produced in the United States or imported from countries affected by COVID-19 can transmit COVID-19,” Stop & Shop added.

Marder Trawling did not respond to a request for comment. But, Katelyn Parady, associate director of Justice at Work, told Business Insider that when workers delivered the letter to Marder, the company’s message was to speak with their temp agencies and to go home if they don’t want to work.

The seafood industry is struggling amid coronavirus

New Bedford fishing vesselAP Photo/Stephan SavoiaA crewman from the fishing vessel Green Acres places a basket of their catch onto a sorter at the Whaling City Seafood Auction in New Bedford, Mass., Monday, May 14, 2012.

New Bedford is home to one of the largest commercial seafood ports in the US, bringing in $US431 million in 2018, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and making it the top port by value in the country.

Amid the coronavirus and closure of restaurants, however, those who bring in the country’s $US5.6 billion commercial catch are reeling: In 2017, more than two-thirds of the $US102.2 billion that consumers paid for fishery products was spent at food service establishments. Last month, members of the industry sent a letter to the White House demanding federal relief since “the sudden near shutdown of restaurants and other storefronts has caused demand to evaporate overnight, threatening the continued economic viability of the entire supply chain. This could mean the loss of tens of thousands of well-paying jobs.”

While the US seafood industry received $US300 million of the government’s $US2 trillion relief package, those in the industry told the Washington Post they continue to struggle. Peter Ramdsden, who runs the company Foley Fish in New Bedford, told the Post: “We’re 80 per cent off of where we need to be to break even.”

James Mullin, vice president of sales for Atlantic Capes Fisheries, told the paper “they have reduced all meat and seafood sales to prepackaged items that do not require selecting, cutting, weighing, wrapping and being handed to a customer over the counter.”

REUTERS/Brian SnyderA worker processes oysters in Alabama.

However, Pacaja and de Leon told Business Insider they have actually noticed an uptick in work due to coronavirus while at Atlantic Capes Fisheries, and they thought more orders were being placed. Pacaja said they typically work from 7 am to around 6 or 6:30 pm and are paid hourly.

Carranza said that at Marder Trawling, where workers are paid piecemeal at $US1.35 a pound, work has slowed. “We work 30, maybe 25, maybe 40 hours per week, but not as many hours as we used to,” he said.

Activists are concerned workers won’t get help from the government

Smith told Business Insider that he’s concerned many of these workers won’t be eligible for any of the federal paid parental leave, even though the companies where they work have less than 500 workers.

According to Smith, and while employers with 500 or fewer workers have to provide paid sick leave and family leave under the law, many of these workers are technically employed by temporary employment agencies, which places them at the processing plants. While Pacaja has been at Atlantic Capes Fisheries for 8 years, and Carranza has been at Marder Trawling for around 5 years, they technically work for the temp agencies BJ’s Service Company and Workforce Unlimited, respectively, rather than the seafood companies. De Leon, who also works for BJ’s, has been at Atlantic Capes Fisheries since 2013.

“So what the factory is saying… is it’s too bad the temp agency has more than 500 employees, so therefore you’re not eligible for your paid leave while you care for your kids,” Smith said. “And that’s where the conversation ends when it should say, ‘However, we are joint employers, we supervise and control your work, we set your hours, we have the power to promote you, to fire you, you get paid based on what we pay the temp agency, so therefore we’re joint employers and you are eligible for this right and so we’re going to make sure it gets paid.'”

BJ’s Service Company and Workforce Unlimited did not respond to requests for comment. A source close to Atlantic Capes Fisheries said that the company plans to comply with the federal paid parental leave, but he doesn’t know when it will go into effect for workers. Parady confirmed that Justice at Work received notice from Atlantic Capes Fisheries that the company will provide workers the paid leave.

REUTERS/Brian SnyderWorkers process crabs in Alabama.

Activists also say that undocumented workers who are in the perverse situation of being deemed essential because they work in industries like agriculture or seafood processing are excluded from the Senate’s stimulus package, which was signed to help mitigate the effects of the country’s economic downturn.

“There are a lot of mixed families that some of them have green cards and some of them are undocumented and there’s a total fear of them accessing any sort of federal services, for fear that it’s going to impact their eligibility and the future of getting citizenship. So this is just compounding that already fear factor, and they live under fear all the time,” said Ed Zuroweste, the founding medical director for the nonprofit Migrant Clinicians Network. “We have a system of millions of farmworkers who are undocumented, who are essential workers right now. Millions. That’s not a sustainable system.”

“We are the ones processing food so consumers can eat”

For Pacaja, she said she was constantly in fear of going to work and getting sick. She was especially worried that she could expose her daughter to the virus at home.

“I go to work and I expose myself to the virus, and then I go home and expose my family to it too. I’m ashamed and scared,” she said, describing the situation while she was working. “If I am getting sick, it’s because of the plant and I know this because I don’t go out. I go from home to work, work to home. I can be certain I’m taking care of myself at home, but at work I don’t have that kind of assurances there.”

De Leon added that due to these risks, she told Atlantic Capes Fisheries she will no longer go to work beginning next week. While she isn’t sure whether or not she’ll be paid once she leaves, she said her health is more important to her than a paycheck.

“It will be very tough. Out of that money, my children depend on it and I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said. “They’re not taking enough safety measures to protect us, they’re just not. They only care about our production rates, they don’t care about us.”

Pacaja said that at Atlantic Capes Fisheries, workers were told that if they feel sick they can take paid sick time for two or three days, but not longer. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that those who are exposed to or have coronavirus symptoms self-quarantine for at least 14 days.

She added that during a meeting with workers last month, the company told them they were responsible for their own health. While they were advised to report and go to the doctor if they have symptoms, Pacaja said they also had to sign a paper “saying we are responsible for our own lives.”

“That’s all the paper said. I read it before signing, but that’s all it said that if you feel sick, you should report and go to the doctor. So I signed it away,” she said. De Leon confirmed that Atlantic Capes Fisheries told workers they can take paid sick time for two or three days, and that she signed that document during the March meeting.

Screen Shot 2020 04 15 at 2.19.30 PMGoogle EarthAtlantic Capes Fisheries

Atlantic Capes Fisheries said in a statement that “On 3/16/2020, employees were reminded of ACF’s Medical Screening Policy and Good Manufacturing Practices. Employees acknowledged and a signed a document that was provided to them in both English and Spanish.”

The text of the document, provided by Atlantic Capes Fisheries to Business Insider, said “I… am acknowledging that is my full responsibility that I inform ACF of any cold or flu like symptoms, sore throat, or the like to my supervisors, line leads, and human resources dept. in the event that I show up to work with these symptoms. I am aware that if I am feeling sick, I will call Atlantic Capes Fisheries, Inc. and my employer (if temporary employee) and seek medical attention as soon as possible. It is my responsibility to not come to work with any illness to prevent and contamination to our products or colleagues. I agree to keep Atlantic Capes Fisheries, Inc. a healthy, safe, and illness-free facility.”

“I know I am responsible, but I also don’t think it comes down to individual responsibility,” Pacaja said, in response to the document. “It’s also the company’s responsibility.”

Carranza said that at Marder Trawling, workers haven’t received any information or guidelines around safety or hygiene from the company about coronavirus.

Pacaja said that she has two teenage boys in Guatemala and, after their father died, she came to the US to earn money and provide for them. While it’s challenging to be home during this time and without income, she felt she didn’t have another option: with the schools closed, she needs to stay home with her daughter, and she didn’t want to risk her health by going to the facility every day.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, she simply wants herself – as well as other seafood processing workers – to feel safe as they work to support their families.

“We are essential workers, we are the ones processing food so consumers can eat,” Carranza told Business Insider. “And that’s why we need to be healthy and safe so this food can reach people’s tables.”

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