Midwest manufacturing workers sound alarm over COVID-19 outbreaks

“Nobody did a thing until after there were positive cases,” a former plant worker in North Dakota told NBC News.
Image: WOrkers at Voyany Beauty
Workers are shown on the manufacturing line at Voyant Beauty in late March. The company makes soaps, lotions and beauty products for major brands in Countryside, Illinois. One temporary worker from Voyant has died from COVID-19, and others said the company hasn't done enough to keep them safe.Chicago Workers Collaborative

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By Suzanne Ciechalski and Lisa Riordan Seville

COVID-19 outbreaks at meat and poultry facilities have hobbled the nation’s meat supply chain, leading President Donald Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to keep them open.

But outbreaks at manufacturing facilities that make everything from wind turbine parts to soap have also sickened scores of workers while garnering far less attention.

Some of those employees are sounding the alarm on what they say were poor safety practices that led to widespread infection among their co-workers.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has more than 1,300 open safety complaints related to COVID-19 at manufacturing facilities, according to NBC News analysis of data that runs through May 4. Those make up about 20 percent of the 6,672 open complaints related to the coronavirus. OSHA also closed 466 complaints from manufacturing facilities through April 22.

Experts said OSHA has taken a lax approach to enforcing safety laws during the pandemic, putting workers at risk.

“OSHA did not put out a standard for this pandemic and is not enforcing their authority,” said Preethi Pratap, a research assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. That’s left even well-meaning facilities scrambling to figure out protections, and workers pay the price, Pratap said. “Every worker is vulnerable.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, vigorously disputed that claim in an email to NBC News. The spokesperson cited guidance issued specifically for the manufacturing sector in mid-April that included social distancing, training workers to properly use protective clothing and equipment, allowing workers to wear masks and ensuring workers have access to public health communications about coronavirus recommendations in the workplace.

“The suggestion that employers have been left to figure it out for themselves is false,” the spokesperson said. The rules already in place have enough teeth to protect workers from the coronavirus, the spokesman said, and the agency doesn’t intend to issue more. “Because of the enforcement authorities already available and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe now is the time to issue a new regulation.”

‘We felt like nobody was paying attention’

TPI Composites, a manufacturer of wind blades, shut down its Newton, Iowa, facility after approximately 20 percent of employees tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a May 2 news release. At least one worker has died.

Kyle Brown, 54, worked at TPI Composites for eight years, most recently in the maintenance department, his wife, Pamela Dennen, told NBC News in a phone interview. Brown died from COVID-19 on April 29.

Dennen described her husband as funny, quirky and passionate about sports. She called him “the best husband ever.”

"We didn’t have a fancy or adventurous life, but we loved it," Dennen said. "The everyday stuff of just living life was so exciting and so fulfilling and so happy."

TPI did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Brown’s death or the number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 at the company's facilities.

Brown began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms on April 17, which started with difficulty breathing and a burning feeling in his chest, Dennen said. Knowing he’d been exposed to the virus, Brown sought testing the following day at a local urgent care center. But staff there told Brown he could not be tested because he didn’t work at a meatpacking plant and wasn’t over 65, Dennen said.

However, Iowa’s testing framework as of April 17, which detailed criteria for COVID-19 testing through the State Hygienic Laboratory, did not require employment at a meatpacking plant to be tested for the virus. Essential services personnel with fever or respiratory illness were among those who fit the criteria for testing.

Brown was later able to get tested at a nearby hospital but was denied hospitalization twice, despite barely being able to breathe, his wife said. He was finally admitted to a hospital in Marshalltown on April 24 and flown to a hospital in Des Moines days later, where he died.

"I don't know if there'd been intervention earlier, I don't know if he'd be able to survive. … We'll never know that," Dennen said. "We felt like nobody was paying attention to how sick he was and that it was being written off as, 'This is COVID. This is what we're seeing. Go home.'"

North Dakota plant shuts down

Almost 500 miles away in Grand Forks, North Dakota, workers said they were ignored in March when they raised alarms about safety conditions at LM Wind Power, a General Electric-owned plant that produces wind turbine blades, according to the company’s website. Weeks later, 145 people tested positive for COVID-19, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. Fifteen of those employees live outside of North Dakota, while 130 are North Dakota residents, the department told NBC News. At least one employee from the plant has died, but GE did not confirm whether it was related to the coronavirus.

”We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our employees,” the plant’s director, Jagadish Rao, said in a statement to NBC News. “We extend our condolences to the family and friends of our colleague, and have offered to assist the family during this difficult time.”

Larissa Boushee, a former employee, said she tried to provide early warning signs back in March, when she wrote an email to the local health department. She said officials told her she wasn’t the only person who was complaining about LM Wind Power and that any complaints would go straight to the mayor’s desk.

“I thought, 'Great, something will happen,'” Boushee said.

Nothing did, Boushee said. So, she took it a step further and went to OSHA.

A Department of Labor spokesperson said the complaint was received on March 26, adding, “At this time, OSHA continues to work with the company during the implementation of their safety action plan.”

GE told NBC News it “proactively took a comprehensive set of actions at our facility in line with CDC guidelines and in coordination with local officials, including implementing temperature checks, increasing the disinfection and cleaning of our site, adding cleaning staff, applying physical distancing measures, staggering break times, and distributing hand sanitizers, among other safety measures.”

But Boushee and two other employees told NBC News that social distancing was not consistently enforced, door handles were not properly disinfected and protective equipment, including masks, was limited.

"We proactively took a comprehensive set of actions at our facility in line with CDC guidelines and in coordination with local officials, including temperature checks and physical distancing measures among others, before we learned of the first cases of COVID-19 at our facility," a GE spokesperson said in a statement when asked about those accusations. "After we learned of cases, we closed the plant and continued to pay our employees as usual. During that time, we thoroughly cleaned and disinfected the facility and expanded our safety protocols, above and beyond CDC guidelines. Our employees are undergoing on-site training, so they are familiarized with new, enhanced workplace safety protocols as we gradually restart production."

One employee said they spoke with supervisors and contacted GE Global with concerns about whether there was a coronavirus plan in place for employees at the plant. They never received a response from GE, but human resources said safety measures would be put in place and anyone with concerns could take voluntary time off, which could include unpaid leave if someone had not accumulated enough paid time off, the employee said.

But taking unpaid leave isn’t realistic for working-class people, said the employee, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution.

“If we don’t have paid time off,” the employee said, “you’re not going to stay home.”

Another employee, who also spoke anonymously for fear of retribution, said supervisors allowed employees who were ill to continue to work.

“I was shocked at how many people were sick and still coming to work,” said the second employee, who has since tested positive for COVID-19.

Three weeks after Boushee raised concerns, the outbreak at LM Wind Power was so widespread that North Dakota’s Department of Health issued an executive order mandating all plant employees remain under quarantine for two weeks.

“Nobody did a thing until after there were positive cases,” Boushee said.

The plant, which shut down in mid-April, is now beginning to reopen, with employees undergoing training to familiarize themselves with new safety protocols, GE said.

But Boushee said she isn’t going back to her job in the plant’s component’s department, where she worked for about one year.

“I don’t feel safe there,” she said. “They just don’t care.”

‘We’re being ignored’

In her district outside of Chicago, Illinois state Rep. Karina Villa said she’s hearing the same concerns. She gets calls daily from workers in the 350 manufacturing facilities in her district who claim their employers haven’t made the changes needed to keep them safe.

“We’re working elbow to elbow. We have to punch in on the same time clock. We’re given flimsy PPE. We’re being ignored,” Villa said workers tell her.

Among Chicagoland residents raising alarm are those at Voyant Beauty, who last month took their concerns to the Illinois attorney general. This week, workers rallied outside the facility in Countryside to demand better sick leave policy.

As is the case throughout the area, many who work at Voyant are temporary workers employed through a staffing agency, according to Tim Bell of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on low-income workers. Many are also Latino, a demographic group that is testing positive for the coronavirus at higher rates than any other in the state. That’s alarmed officials and experts who say that if the number of COVID-19 cases "continues to rise in Latino communities, so too will the rates of deaths."

Until recently, Hilda Bravo was one of those Voyant workers. She spent 17 years at the facility, putting labels on lotion, shampoo and soap for major brands. In early April, Bravo got a notice from her staffing agency that the facility would shut down for cleaning for several days.

“They didn’t say why,” Bravo recalled.

Soon after, Bravo learned her colleague Norma Martinez, whom she had seen on her last day at work, had died from COVID-19. Another employee who worked on Bravo’s line tested positive around the same time, she said.

“An individual who previously worked with us as a temporary employee tragically passed away at their home, presumably from COVID-19,” Voyant spokesperson Anne Miller wrote in an email. “We mourn this individual’s passing, and we are heartbroken for this loss.”

Voyant told NBC News it is taking precautions, including temperature checks when workers arrive; use of social distancing, masks and plastic shields between workers; and deep cleaning on weekends or when someone has presumably tested positive for COVID-19.

“While unfortunate that anyone should catch this virus, less than 1% of our worker population has tested positive for COVID-19,” Miller said.

After 17 days of self-quarantine, Bravo went back to Voyant — she was worried about paying her rent. She said that while the company was checking for fever, people were still working in close quarters. “There are so many lines bunched together that social distancing is impossible," she said.

After nearly two decades as a temp worker at the facility, Bravo decided not to return. She has heard of at least eight co-workers at Voyant who have tested positive for COVID-19 and is worried about what would happen if she caught the virus, as she doesn’t have health insurance or sick leave.

“There’s already been one person dead, and there have been several infected,” Bravo said. “I’m 60 years old. I’m afraid to go back.”

Mark Denzler, president and CEO Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, which represents the majority of facilities in the state, said his members are working hard to protect their employees. One challenge has been that throughout the pandemic, the guidance around safety has been a moving target.

“The guidance has changed rapidly,” Denzler said. “One of the frustrations that we hear from our members are different opinions or interpretations of best practice.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might say one thing and the local health department another, he said, making it difficult for the companies trying hard to know what the best practices are.

Villa said she has seen companies who have kept workers safe, which is why she feels others can do better.

“That’s how I know there’s a standard that can be met,” she said. “It’s not impossible to put people above profit.”

Emily Siegel contributed.