Two guest workers from Mexico say they were stricken with COVID-19 as they processed crawfish in a crowded Louisiana plant ― and that their bosses forbid them from going to the hospital and threatened to report them to immigration authorities when they finally did. Ultimately, they got fired.
The women, Reyna Isabel Alvarez Navarro and Maribel Hernandez Villadares, detailed their disturbing allegations this month in filings with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Labor Relations Board. The documents (here, here and here) offer a chilling depiction of the challenges confronting essential workers amid the pandemic, similar to the widely reported stories from meatpacking plants.
In this case, both women were foreign-born guest workers who came to the U.S. on temporary H-2B visas to work at Acadia Processors, a crawfish wholesaler in Crowley, Louisiana.
Seafood processors along the Gulf Coast use the H-2B workers, and claims about poor working conditions and substandard housing are not uncommon. The program ties a worker’s employment to a particular company for the duration of the visa, an arrangement that can prevent workers from seeking other jobs or speaking up about working and living conditions.
Alvarez Navarro and Hernandez Villadares say they slept at company-provided housing while working on the nearby crawfish farm, a common arrangement in H-2B relationships. According to their complaints, workers in the plant began to show symptoms of COVID-19 in late March, and their supervisors soon imposed a “strict quarantine” and told them not to leave their living quarters.
I felt like I was in the hands of the bosses.
Reyna Isabel Alvarez Navarro
Alvarez Navarro and Hernandez Villadares said they became “extremely sick” in mid-May, but were told to transfer to quarantine housing instead of seeking medical treatment. “I told my coworkers that I did not trust the company to take care of us and I thought we would all be safer going to the hospital immediately,” Alvarez Navarro wrote in her charge with the NLRB.
The two said they went to Acadia General Hospital for treatment on May 15 and did not return to the company housing. They were fired, and supervisors told them that the company was going to report them to immigration because they no longer worked for the company that held their visa, the pair said in their filings.
Three days after the women say they went to the hospital, the Louisiana Department of Health publicly announced severe coronavirus outbreaks had occurred among the workforces at three crawfish plants in Acadia and Lafayette parishes.
Aly Neel, a spokesperson for the state health department, said the agency would not confirm whether Acadia Processors was one of the trio of plants with major outbreaks. She said a total of about 100 cases were reported at the three.
“We worked closely with the facilities to minimize infection, ensure access to testing and provide technical support, including assisting with temporary housing for those who were unable to isolate,” Neel said in an email. “Fortunately, in the past month there have been no new cases.”
Acadia did not respond to messages left seeking comment on the women’s allegations.
The New Orleans-based news site The Advocate reported on the outbreaks at unnamed plants last month, finding that the crowded living quarters for guest workers likely played a significant role. “If one person gets it, there’s a good chance everyone’s going to get sick,” one crawfish farmer told the outlet.
According to Labor Department records, Acadia Processors requested at least 100 guest workers for 2020, to be paid a base rate of $9.75 per hour, though workers can earn more depending on how fast they peel crawfish. The housing provided would be “voluntary” and “low cost,” the company said in its application, with the company deducting $50 per week from those who opted for it.
In an interview with HuffPost, Alvarez Navarro said she and others worked so close to one another in the plant that their shoulders touched, and they often slept six or seven to a room in the dorm-style company housing. “One kitchen for everyone, one dining area where we eat together,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter.
Alvarez Navarro said it seemed as if everyone was infected, with so much of the workforce showing flu-like symptoms. She said supervisors took her and other workers to a clinic to get tested for the coronavirus, but she never received the results. She said tests also were offered at the plant, but workers were being charged for them.
She said a friend who lived in town took her and Hernandez Villadares to the hospital, adding that she felt “like I was going to die.”
Company officials said “no one can leave the house nor could anyone come in,” she said. “I felt like I was in the hands of the bosses. When people were infected… I had no resources to get tested. I just wanted to know.”
She said she received positive test results from the hospital about four days later.
Daniel Costa, an immigration law expert at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, said that in general, the living and working conditions for H-2B workers are “tailor-made” for spreading the coronavirus.
The workers “are always easily fire-able if they speak up about wages or working conditions ― which leads to them losing their visa status and becoming deportable ― and most are terrified of losing their jobs because they’ve paid hefty recruitment fees,” Costa said in an email. “Now on top of that they have to worry about getting sick and the virus spreading in the workplace and in living quarters, and their employers not caring and not taking adequate precautions or implementing safety measures.”
Alvarez Navarro and Hernandez Villadares have received legal assistance from Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a worker center for migrant workers from Mexico, which arranged the interview with Alvarez Navarro. In a letter to OSHA, the group argued that the women’s refusal to stay in company-ordered quarantine housing is protected under safety whistleblower law: They feared for their lives and had no reasonable alternative.
If their firings were found to be illegal, the two women would be entitled to back pay and job reinstatement.
The Seafood Workers Alliance, a New Orleans-based worker center, has been organizing guest workers in an attempt to improve the jobs inside seafood processing plants in the area. Sabina Hinz-Foley Trejo, an organizer for the group, said coronavirus outbreaks were “inevitable” considering the working standards and H-2B arrangements.
“The majority of crawfish peeler and harvesters are guest workers. That whole system just allows for very little enforcement, very little worker protections, and a lot of retaliation,” she said. “There are a lot of really horrible labor practices.”
Hinz-Foley Trejo also criticized the state for not disclosing the names of the plants where workers had high infection rates, saying it was a matter of public health to know where major outbreaks occurred.
“To keep this secret and to protect employers through this, essentially the state is complicit,” she said.
Kate Sheppard contributed reporting.