Coronavirus and the factory: One worker’s journal

A factory worker in Southern California explains the importance of this section of the working class and then writes a journal of how the Covid-19 crisis is affecting the workers in that worker’s work place. He describes, in the end, getting sick himself and what happens:

As with the vast majority of working people across the country and around the world, the coronavirus crisis has directly impacted the lives and working situations of workers in the U.S. manufacturing industry. Some factory workers are, of course, currently laid off or awaiting the end of temporary plant shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus. In all likelihood, though, the majority of manufacturing workers are still toiling on the factory floor in increasingly unnerving conditions. This includes, among untold others, essential production workers in the food processing and slaughterhouse sectors: workers whose labor ensures that society does not starve to death and that the people have food to eat. It also includes factory workers at vital healthcare equipment plants: workers that make the ventilators, face masks, hand sanitizer, and other products that are needed to equip and supply healthcare workers at hospitals across the country.

Notably, despite widespread misconceptions regarding U.S. manufacturing, including within the Left, the U.S. manufacturing sector is still absolutely massive. Indeed, the United States has the second largest manufacturing industry in the world. Only China’s is larger. In total, prior to the outbreak of the current crisis, there were likely more than 14 million factory workers across the country. This includes temp workers, who are not directly counted in the manufacturing sector by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but who comprise a large and growing portion of the overall factory workforce. And over the course of the past decade, the manufacturing sector has seen significant growth in employment and output.

A”Outburst of spontaneous struggles”
As with workers in other sectors, there has been an outburst of spontaneous struggles by factory workers in response to safety concerns resulting from the coronavirus. Notable examples of this include the multiple wildcat strikes and work refusals by auto workers at plants owned by the Big 3. As documented by
Labor Notes, these actions succeeded in forcing the companies to impose temporary plant shutdowns (with pay for workers) at North American plants. Other noteworthy struggles include a walkout by chicken processing workers at a non-union Perdue Farms plant in Kathleen, Georgia and a sickout at the massive Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine, which employs some 6,800 workers. Also, on Monday, GE workers staged multiple protests calling for the company to rescind recent layoffs and convert factory space at multiple GE-owned plants across the country to produce desperately needed ventilators for hospitals.

What follows is a day-by-day account of life on the factory floor during the coronavirus pandemic by one worker at a medium-sized plant located in California.

Friday, March 11
At my factory job, workers are provided with no sick leave whatsoever. We have access to paid time off – but in order to use one or two consecutive days of PTO, the bosses require that we submit a request for the time 48 hours or more in advance. For three to five consecutive PTO days, we have to submit the request a week or more in advance.

Under this system, if you fail to give proper notice for missing a day – for instance, because you wake up in the morning with a fever and decide that it isn’t safe to come to work – then you receive a “point.” Once you reach seven “points,” then you’re subject to termination. Even if you bring a doctor’s note upon returning, then you still receive a half of a “point” for every day that you missed work.

The entire system is designed, it seems, to make workers “suck it up” and come to work, even if we’re sick.

Sunday, March 15
At my job on Friday, the company held a series of meetings about the crisis for all of the production workers, both temps and permanents, on both first and second shift.

It was announced during the meeting, for one thing, that the company has suspended the punitive “point” system as it relates to calling in sick from work. If you’re feeling sick, the boss that conducted the meeting stated, then call in and don’t come to work – you won’t receive any “points.”

In addition to that, the company’s top-level corporate management has apparently implemented a series of protocols regarding quarantining workers. Anyone that has left the country or traveled on an airplane recently is being barred from returning to work for 14 days. At the plant where we work, this applies to two workers that recently flew home for vacation to their home countries in Latin America. It also applies to another worker that traveled to another state this past weekend.

As of yet, the company has refused to state whether it’s going to provide paid sick leave to workers that are being quarantined for the 14-day period. The vast majority of us do not have two weeks of PTO built up in order to ensure that we don’t miss a paycheck in case we’re put in this situation. (In addition, the company provides no actual paid sick leave – only PTO.)

Workers were very concerned at the meeting, and a bunch of people (myself included) asked the boss a series of hard-hitting questions. Afterwards we stood around and talked about it in our workstations for a while before restarting work. One coworker summed up the situation well when he told me that, “If you’re sick – and they make you go home for two weeks – and you don’t have PTO – then how do we pay our bills? The rent is still going to have to be paid every month no matter what.”

The company tells us that they’re going to inform us about the policy for sick leave and quarantine pay next week.

If they say that they aren’t going to pay us if we’re quarantined, then I’m going to try to organize a petition campaign if other workers are willing to stick their necks out with me. The quarantined workers need to be paid by the company. Also, we shouldn’t have to waste all of our hard-earned (and extremely limited) PTO just to ensure that we don’t miss a check.

The foot dragging on this issue runs the risk not only of putting us in economic uncertainty – it also potentially puts us and our families at greater risk in terms of exposure to sickness. What if a worker is feeling sick but they’re afraid of being quarantined and missing a paycheck? They might be inclined to come to work anyway and get the rest of us sick.

Also, what about the temp workers, who comprise as much as twenty percent or more of the workforce? As stipulated in Los Angeles city law, these workers are entitled to, at minimum, 48 hours (or six eight-hour days) of paid sick leave. What if temps are forced to take a full two weeks off from work to comply with the quarantine period? Also, is there any guarantee in place that these workers won’t be arbitrarily retaliated against by the company – i.e. have their temporary “contract ended” – in the case that they have to call in sick and stay out for a full two weeks?

Tuesday, March 17
As I posted last week, on Friday, the bosses at my factory job announced a series of new policies in relation to the coronavirus. Workers that have flown on an airplane or left the country recently are being quarantined and kept away from work for a mandatory 14-day period. And workers that report being sick are being kept away, as well. Beyond that, management stated that, in the case that someone at the plant contracts the coronavirus, there will be a temporary plant shutdown for an unstated period of time.

Meanwhile, production is on a normal schedule at the factory right now. In fact, this week, many first-shift workers are working overtime.

At the meeting on Friday, multiple workers asked how the workers that are sick or are being quarantined are going to be paid – and if we will be paid in the case of a temporary plant shutdown. As it is, the company does not provide sick pay – and, while they do provide Paid Time Off (PTO) for permanent workers, most workers do not have a full two weeks of PTO available at this time.

In response to these questions, we were told that corporate level management is going to make a decision about that this week.

On Monday, we received a partial answer of sorts. In short, our supervisor told us that the company is going to pay workers our annual profit-sharing check on Friday. Until now, we were expecting to receive this money in early or mid April. The profit-sharing check is only for around $2,000. And this is money that we’ve already long since earned and worked for – and that we’ve all been expecting for months and months. Meanwhile, the supervisor said absolutely nothing about the issue of sick or quarantine pay.

Basically, what happened, it seems, is that over the weekend, corporate management sat down and set out to find a way that they could appease workers, who are terrified about the prospect of missing paychecks as a result of the coronavirus – while at the same time avoiding spending any additional money or providing us with any new benefits. This is the solution that they came up with: to give us our profit-sharing check a month early and ignore our need for sick pay.

Quite frankly, I find the whole situation disgusting.

We need sick pay to ensure the safety and security of us and our families. All workers need sick pay.

Wednesday, March 18
It’s still business as usual for most factory workers right now.

As an added note: The company announced yesterday that all permanent workers now have access to 40 hours of sick leave for the duration of this crisis. We’ll see what happens.

Friday, March 20
So, the factory where I work is going to remain open despite the shutdown orders for both Los Angeles and California as a whole. The company has received a waiver on account of producing “essential infrastructure equipment.”

I don’t know what to say about this. At this point, most workers are just extremely relieved that we’re still going to be working and earning a paycheck. Up until this point, the company had made us afraid about the prospect of being laid off without pay.

Wednesday, March 25
At the plant where I work, we received word today that the relative of a coworker has tested positive for COVID-19. The coworker is still awaiting test results himself. Meanwhile, the plant is remaining open. They have quarantined the section of the plant where this guy works, which happens to be somewhat isolated from the main areas of the plant.

The bosses say that they want the plant to stay open so that everyone gets a paycheck. I think they just want to put product out the door. They don’t care about us. During a meeting today, the Big Boss told us that, since we are all of working age, then nobody is particularly at risk. What about our families?

Many people are scared – yet at the same time cowed. I feel like I need to do something.

Thursday, March 26
I called out today. I’m going to go back to work tomorrow assuming that there’s no new news.

Saturday, March 28
There’s lots of talk at my job. But people are scared.

A group of us had a discussion, in both Spanish and English, at the start of our shift on Friday. Part of the crew expressed anger at the way the company is handling the situation. One worker expressed an individualist outlook: “There is a risk in anything you do right now. There is even a risk in going to the grocery store. It is up to each individual to make the choice of whether to put themselves at risk by coming to work.”

I made a point like this: “The expectations of working people are too low. All of us are going to keep coming to work because we need money to support ourselves and our families and pay our bills. But the thing is, the company is not doing enough in terms of pay and safety. Other workers get hazard pay right now – $2 more an hour. We don’t get shit. The company could easily afford to pay us to stay at home for a month. They don’t want to because they want us to be here, producing and making profits for them. This company made record profits in 2019 – and yet they want to skimp at every opportunity and force us to put our lives at risk so that they can get more, more, more, more.”

Right now, I’m headed to a six-hour overtime shift at the plant.

Monday, March 30
We were just informed that the coworker at my factory job whose family member tested positive for COVID-19 last week has also tested positive himself. He has an asymptomatic case. This guy was at work as recently as Tuesday.

Meanwhile, I feel like I have a minor cold right now. I don’t feel particularly sick – but I don’t want to spread it if I do have it. I showed up to work, but I told the bossman and went home without starting work.

At a meeting held outside in the parking lot to abide by “social distancing” protocol, the Big Boss said that the plant is going to stay open despite all of this. They want to “keep putting product out of the door,” in the words of the boss. There is some grounds to claim that the plant is “essential.” Apparently, the company’s plant in the Southwest – which produces much of the same equipment as the plant where I work – has been shut down for six days after two workers on the assembly line were seen sneezing and coughing on the line last week.

Right now, I’m waiting to hear back from a doctor for a video checkup. I’m going to try to get tested for the virus. If I test positive, I’m going to call up the plant and tell them and urge them to shutdown.

UPDATE: I just talked to the doctor. They told me that I don’t meet the criteria for being tested. They said that it sounds like I have a common cold – and that, unless the symptoms get worse, I should just plan on taking today and tomorrow off and returning to work on Wednesday. The doctor is giving me a note for my job.

Categories: Coronavirus, United States

1 reply »

  1. I go back to work on Tuesday, after being on paid vacation for 2 weeks. I have no idea what I’m walking into though it’s been reported that five Shop Rite employees have COVID 19 here in New Jersey. My smart & beautiful wife ordered some masks so that I have some protection and I have access to disposable gloves, and they’ve implemented social distancing and cleaning protocols, but its obviously not enough. As a worker deemed essential though not paid as such, my guy tells me we need a national general strike supported by all the unions in order to make this situation a little less precarious for all workers and the self-employed/freelancers.

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