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About a month ago, fish plant worker Yamileth Alvarado says she and her team got together at the Tichon Seafood facility in New Bedford to listen to a presentation on how workers can protect themselves from COVID-19. A government employee, through a translator, told them what many of us have been hearing for weeks: 

  • Maintain six feet of separation from everyone at all times. 
  • Wash your hands. 
  • Disinfect everything. 
  • Don’t reuse gloves.

Alvarado felt some relief thinking the facility would start putting these precautions in place. “But everything continued as any other day,” Alvarado told The Public’s Radio in Spanish. “Nothing changed.”

“We are so close to each other that we can hear the person next to us breathing,” Alvarado said. “And nowadays [given COVID-19] this is not how things should be.”

Workers receive sleeves, hairnets, and two pairs of latex gloves every week, says the 32-year old fish processor. Any other protective equipment, like masks, must be purchased on the workers’ dime. And the basics, Alvarado says, are hard to come by. There is no hand sanitizer and one alcohol spray bottle at the entrance of the facility that workers congregate around. 

“Sometimes there isn’t even soap to wash our hands,” she said. “[The company] isn’t treating us how we deserve to be treated because we are the ones who keep working despite all that's going on.”

Alvarado recently stopped working when she couldn’t get childcare for her three young children, but she says she worries now about her co-workers. Tichon Seafood was unavailable for comment despite repeated requests by phone and email.

As a surge of COVID-19 cases continue to spread, seafood processing workers across Southeastern Massachusetts are raising similar concerns about unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. 

A group of fish plant workers, who process a variety of seafood that ends up on dinner plates across the globe, sent a letter to nearly 30 companies on Monday urging them to implement better worker safety standards.  

There are complaints of a lack of personal protective equipment and disinfectants as well as overcrowding in facilities. Fish processing advocates fear that if that continues, facilities could begin to see a COVID-19 outbreak among its workers.  

Adrian Ventura, director of an immigrant nonprofit group called Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, says he knows of almost 11 fish plant workers who have contracted coronavirus. 

“[A worker] is afraid she’s going to lose her job because she [contracted the virus],” Ventura said in Spanish. 

The office of New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell says it’s the first time they’ve heard these concerns from fish plant workers. The coronavirus has struck the cities of New Bedford and Fall River where many of the fish employees live and work. Bristol County has nearly 1,400 confirmed coronavirus cases.

“In this moment, you really can't separate worker’s health from the public's health overall,” said Thomas Smith, executive director of Justice at Work which provides legal services to low-income immigrant workers. 

Justice at Work helped the group of fish plant workers known as Pescando Justicia (Fishing for Justice) prepare the letter to seafood processors this week. The group has wrangled with the seafood processing industry over the years on a number of issues including sexual harassment claims, hostile work environment, overtime violations, and lack of sick time.

This week, seafood processing workers across Southeastern Massachusetts filed a class action lawsuit this week against a temp agency, alleging Rhode Island-based Workforce Unlimited failed to allow their employees to get paid for sick time and is in violation of Massachusetts law. The workers are seeking back pay for sick time taken over the last three years.

Attorney Rachel Smit of the law firm Fair Work is representing the workers. She says it’s critical for workers to know that they don’t have to choose between going to work or going in sick, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

“If an employer is not providing paid sick time to its employees,” Smit said. “Then there is a major disincentive for workers to stay home when they may be sick or may be concerned that they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.”

The largest seafood processing facilities in the Southcoast - including Blue Harvest, Atlantic Capes, Eastern Fisheries, and JT Sea Products - declined to comment on the allegations posed by fish plant workers in the letter. But in an interview with The Public’s Radio last week, Blue Harvest CEO Keith Decker said the plant has established a number of protocols to protect workers including staggering shifts, installing hand sanitizer stations, and asking employees how they’re feeling before entering the plant.

“We’re being very cautious about who is allowed into the facility,” Decker said. “A worker, if they have high exposure, could effectively shut your processing operation down completely.”

A state Health Department spokesperson said the state has not yet received direct complaints about  working conditions in the plants, and will be looking into it. Anyone with concerns to public health should notify the Health Department at (508) 991-6199.