Seventy-six farmworkers who work for Primex Farms in Wasco, California have tested positive for COVID-19—over twice as many workers as the company has publicly acknowledged. The United Farm Workers labor union has been tracking coronavirus cases among Primex contract workers and employees, relying primarily on self-reported data from workers.
“The company finally admitted last week that 31 workers were positive,” said UFW Secretary Armando Elenes, but only after workers went on strike and put significant public pressure on the Wasco-based dried fruit and nut processor to acknowledge the outbreak. “The company finally started listening,” Elenes continued, “but unfortunately they’re not listening enough. And as a matter of fact, they’re blaming the workers themselves for the coronavirus.”
Primex grows pistachios and other varieties of tree nuts on 5,000 acres of orchards in Wasco. The company decided to shut down operations last week, announcing that it would conduct a thorough cleaning of its production facilities.
Yet according to Elenes, “the workers are telling us that, in reality, it was a regularly scheduled fumigation that they do every other two or three months.” These periodic fumigation efforts are intended for treating insects and not for cleaning surfaces for the human-spread coronavirus.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not recommend using fumigation to disinfect for the coronavirus “unless the pesticide product label specifically includes disinfection directions for fogging, fumigation, or wide-area or electrostatic spraying.”
Not only did the company take no special cleaning precautions, said Elenes, but Primex used their own workers to do the cleaning, even though those employees could be infected with COVID-19. Going forward, the striking farmworkers would prefer an outside company to handle the cleaning, added Elenes.
The company has paid for a mobile testing clinic to test its employees according to reporting by the Los Angeles Times. But Wasco Councilmember Alex Garcia said he’d like to see much more from growers like Primex. There is a state-run COVID-19 testing site at a local library, but “in my opinion, that’s not enough,” he said. Garcia would like to see many more testing sites, especially mobile sites, paid for by growers and processors in the area.
Although the Wasco testing site at the library operates from 7 AM to 7 PM, Tuesday through Saturday, the site has been testing between 130 and 140 people on a daily basis, he explained. More testing sites are desperately needed, he urged.
Marielos Cisneros, who works at Primex, tested positive for COVID-19 in June. She’s a single mom and the sole financial provider for her four kids, and many of her fellow coworkers are also single mothers. Her coworker called her recently in a panic, complaining of a headache and shortness of breath, wondering if she too was infected.
“This is not fair,” said Cisneros. “I mean, our lives, our kids, our families…a lot of them are single moms, and it’s not fair.” Cisneros added that kids are also showing symptoms, including her six year old, who has been running a 101.9 degree fever.
The worst part is knowing they’ve infected family members, said Daniela Gonzalez Mejia. “I have family and some of them got infected by me and I didn’t—I couldn’t know—because Primex…they didn’t let us know.” Counting family members, the outbreak has now infected 109 people in total, according to Elenes’s most recent data.
“We’re talking about babies and children that don’t have the same defenses as ourselves,” added Mejia. One child who tested positive is just nine months old.
Primex worker Veronica Perez was bringing face masks to work for her fellow coworkers when a human resources manager for the company approached her to ask whether she was selling the masks to her colleagues. Perez was not, but she was told the company has been selling similar face masks for $8. Perez has also been tested for COVID-19 but is still waiting for test results.
Remigio Ramirez has been working at Primex as a maintenance worker for 13 years. “The company had told him that if anybody would test positive, that they would let them know,” said Elenes, translating for Ramirez. When Ramirez first started feeling flu-like symptoms, his supervisor downplayed his concerns and assured him he probably had the flu.
“Now, most of us are infected, my wife, my daughter,” said Ramirez (as translated by Elenes). “What are we going to do? Everybody’s infected.”