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Foster Farms Failed To Remove Fresno Worker After Positive COVID Test, Son Says

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Craig Kohluss/The Fresno Bee
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A sign stands outside the gate at Foster Farms' Cherry Avenue facility in Fresno on May 26, 2021.

Singh got a text message just before 1 p.m. one day in early December, alerting him that his mother’s COVID-19 test results were available.

Singh’s mother — an employee at Foster Farms’ chicken processing plant on South Cherry Avenue in south Fresno for more than 15 years — doesn’t speak English or have a smartphone, so she had routed her test results through her son. He tapped the link in the message from a third-party testing company and learned that his mother had tested positive.

Singh said he immediately called his mom to notify her of her results, but she didn’t answer. Employees aren’t supposed to have their cell phones with them on the production line, he said, so like many workers, she typically stowed her phone in her lunch bag. Since he couldn’t alert her, he expected a supervisor to inform his mom of her results. He expected his mother would call him and request an early ride home from work.

Instead, she continued processing and packing raw chicken for nearly four more hours after she had tested positive, working in such close quarters that she could bump the workers next to her if she bent her elbows out to the side, Singh said. When she finally called Singh around 4:30 p.m. and asked him to pick her up, she had no idea she’d tested positive, he said. In fact, she was expected to return to the plant the following day and had already received her work assignment.

The Fresno Bee is not using Singh’s first name because he and his mother fear retribution from Foster Farms.

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Credit Craig Kohluss/The Fresno Bee
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A security guard checks the back doors of a truck at a gate at the Foster Farms facility on Cherry Avenue in Fresno on May 26, 2021.

Singh’s mother was among 455 employees and staff who contracted COVID-19 during an outbreak that began in late October at Foster Farms’ South Cherry Avenue plant and continued through at least December, according to James Sponsler with the Fresno County Public Health Department. The health department identified an additional 234 close contacts who could have been exposed to the virus by those employees and staff, he said.

As of March 22, at least 18 employees at the South Cherry Avenue facility had been hospitalized due to complications of COVID-19 during the pandemic, and at least six employees had died from complications of the virus, according to California Department of Industrial Relations data provided to The Bee.

Emergency temporary standards issued by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health require employers to provide twice-weekly COVID-19 testing to all employees present at a workplace where there are 20 or more COVID-19 cases within a 30-day period.

Amid the December outbreak, Foster Farms employed what it called an “aggressive testing strategy” at the South Cherry Avenue facility — involving twice-weekly mass testing of all workers — in order to “remove (+) workers from a facility quickly in situations where a larger outbreak is defined,” the company said in a Dec. 5 memo obtained through the California Public Records Act.

“Foster Farms is committed to implementing the most robust processes and programs to reduce the risk of viral transmission within the workplace environment,” the company said in the memo. “We are likely leading the California business community in the asymptomatic COVID-19 testing program we have organized and continue to execute.”

But Singh’s story offers a glimpse into how that strategy might have fallen short. 

The company did not pull his mother off the production line when she tested positive for COVID-19, Singh said. It also didn’t effectively communicate what a worker should do if he or she tested positive during mass testing events, he said. The company never issued written instructions — or verbal instructions in Punjabi, one of the main languages spoken by facility employees — regarding what workers should do if they test positive, he said.

Singh was especially sensitive to the company’s actions, which he said he views as failures in communication. He has a master’s degree in public health and has trained to work in health care, and was acutely aware that both of his parents were at high risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 due to preexisting health conditions.

“They never acknowledged that she should not have not been working the day that we got the results,” he said.

Responding to multiple questions from The Bee about Foster Farms’ protocol for informing workers of their test results, the company said it “has no response on this matter.”

Singh is not the first person to raise concerns about the company’s handling of COVID-19. Cal/OSHA this week cited Foster Farms for failing to protect workers from COVID-19 at its poultry plant and distribution center in Merced County. The agency issued the multi-billion-dollar company a proposed penalty of $181,500 — one of the steepest citations it has leveraged during the pandemic.

The agency alleged the company failed to “establish, implement and maintain” an effective system for communicating with its employees and contract employees regarding COVID-19 in the workplace and failed to maintain an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program, among other concerns.  

The company would not provide comment to The Bee regarding the citations, but told Cal/OSHA that it will be appealing the violation, according to Department of Industrial Relations spokesperson Erika Monterroza.

Singh’s mother’s experience as well as the Cal/OSHA citations reflect a pattern of poor communication around COVID-19 protocols at Foster Farms, said Naindeep Singh, executive director of Jakara Movement, which organizes Punjabi Sikhs and other marginalized communities across California.

“I received many independent reports from multiple workers sharing that information and communication during different localized surges at individual plants was not forthcoming, extremely limited and some even alleged that they believed the company was purposely withholding and delaying information in the interest of maximizing the number of workers on the lines,” said Naindeep Singh, who is not related to Singh.

Foster Farms, he said, should have been more proactive in protecting workers.

“If the company had work conditions that were especially conducive to the spread of the virus, it was their responsibility to be proactive in assuring the safety of all the workforce,” he said.

Employees loyal to Foster Farms amid pandemic

While the outbreak at the South Cherry Avenue facility started in late October, Foster Farms officials started testing all facility employees twice each week, beginning the first week of December.

The goal was “to universally test in order to curb spread via removal of any/all (+) workers,” Dr. Robert O’Connor, who has a degree in veterinary medicine and serves as Foster Farms’ senior vice president for technical services, said in a Nov. 30 email to county health officials.

By that point, Foster Farms employees like Singh’s mother had already taken other steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

She started wearing goggles over her eyes and a mask over her mouth and nose, Singh said. As COVID-19 cases began increasing in late fall, she received one plastic face shield from the company, he said. She wore that protective equipment along with her regular gear: a yellow apron, long sleeves, knee-high boots, gloves, a hairnet, and earplugs.

Her glasses, goggles, and face shield would fog up, he said, but she couldn’t wipe them clean with her chicken-contaminated gloves. Looking at the fast-moving production lines with blurred vision made her dizzy.

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Credit Craig Kohluss/The Fresno Bee
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A truck pulls up to the gate at the Foster Farms facility on Cherry Avenue in Fresno on May 26, 2021.

Yet, she continued working.

She’d held the job at Foster Farms since the family emigrated from India in 2006, Singh said, and earned minimum wage plus retirement benefits. The facility was poorly ventilated, he said, and the production lines moved at ever-increasing speeds.

But other less-tangible benefits reinforced her loyalty to the company.

Much of the company’s workforce are immigrants, many of them from the Punjabi Sikh community, Singh said. His mother doesn’t drive, but she could carpool to and from work with community members, paying the driver $2 each way. She could speak with her colleagues in Punjabi, wear traditional Indian clothing at work and eat with friends during meal breaks, he said.

What’s the protocol for informing workers of COVID-19 test results?

Two weeks after launching the twice-weekly testing events, O’Connor of Foster Farms provided an update to county officials: While nearly 22% of workers at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19 during mass testing events Dec. 1 and Dec. 2, virus prevalence among workers had fallen to about 6% by the Dec. 10 and Dec. 11 testing events, he said.

“The decreased prevalence demonstrates that (+) workers are being identified and removed from the population,” he said in a Dec. 14 email to county officials. “I expect the prevalence to continue to decrease. The objective of the aggressive testing strategy is working, and Foster Farms plans to continue with it.”

But it’s unclear what the company’s protocol was for actually removing workers who tested positive.

Cal/OSHA’s emergency temporary standards require employers to implement and maintain a written COVID-19 Prevention Program. As part of that, employers must “inform affected employees of the reason for the COVID-19 testing and the possible consequences of a positive test.” Additionally, employers must exclude from work any employees who have COVID-19, whether or not they are vaccinated, according to the guidelines.

“Employers have a responsibility to notify employees about their own positive test or when they’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive,” said Alice Berliner, director of the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health. “It’s simply irresponsible and dangerous for an employer to withhold this information from someone.”

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Credit Craig Kohluss/The Fresno Bee
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Buildings stand beyond chicken cages and dumpster bins at the Foster Farms facility on Cherry Avenue in Fresno on May 26, 2021.

Foster Farms would not answer The Bee’s questions about the company’s protocol for informing people they had tested positive for COVID-19 during mass testing events. It wouldn’t say whether it directly informed individual workers of their results and, if so, how. It also wouldn’t detail its protocol for workers who test positive for COVID-19 mid-shift and wouldn’t say whether it would pull an employee off the production line.

“What’s the purpose of testing if there is not a process for what to do with workers who are testing positive?” said Ana Padilla, executive director of UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center. “If there is a testing program that they have on-site, there should be a clear process, so there isn’t confusion about what to do next after workers test.”

‘Urgent need’ to inform worker of COVID-19 result

Singh’s mother was tested for COVID-19 several times at work. She was among 69 — or nearly 11% — of the 636 workers who tested positive between Dec. 7 and Dec. 8, during the company’s second week of mass testing, according to a Dec. 10 email from the company to county health officials.

She was surprised when Singh picked her up from work and informed her of her positive test result, he said. At that point, she was asymptomatic.

Despite the news, she told her son she intended to report to work the following day. Not only had she already received her work assignment, but the company was paying people extra to show up at work, he said. She didn’t want to pass up that bonus.

But Singh said he forced her to stay home.

“If people don’t have advocates at home,” he said, “they’re going to go to work.”

He added: “I’m sure that’s part of the reason why there was such a major outbreak, because there was no real regulation.”

The company didn’t reach out to Singh’s mother regarding her results until nearly two full days after she had tested positive, Singh said. The representative spoke English, so Singh’s mother passed the phone to him, and he translated the company’s message: She should return to work 10 days after she was initially tested.

But due to her preexisting conditions and the extreme fatigue she developed from the virus, her doctor recommended she take more time off from work. The doctor was also treating other Foster Farms workers at the time, Singh said, and he didn’t think it would be safe for her to return to the facility.

Ellen Widess, who previously served as the chief of Cal/OSHA, said Singh’s mother’s story represented “a breakdown in communication” between Foster Farms and its employees, especially those who don’t speak English.

“The idea that they would let a COVID-positive person continue to work, at risk to their own health and risking exposure to fellow workers, is appalling,” she said.

Company officials should have privately informed Singh’s mother of her test results and urged her to go home, isolate and seek medical care if needed, Widess said.

“There was an immediate, urgent need to let the worker know the test results,” she said.

Previous Fresno Bee reporting by Manuela Tobias is included in this story.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

 

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