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Worried seafood workers so close together they can 'feel each other breathe’

North Coast Seafood's fish-processing plant, before the coronavirus pandemic.
North Coast Seafood's fish-processing plant, before the coronavirus pandemic.George Rizer/Globe Staff/file

Workers processing seafood at plants in and around New Bedford say their employers are putting them in danger of being exposed to the coronavirus by not providing face masks, not properly sanitizing work areas, and forcing them in some cases to work shoulder to shoulder as they clean and cut scallops and other seafood.

“Some people are working so close together they can feel each other breathe," workers associated with Pescando Justicia, a coalition supporting seafood workers, said in a statement.

One worker told an advocacy group: "The person next to you sneezes or coughs and you feel that."

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On Monday, workers started delivering letters to more than 30 seafood plants and temp agencies in Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, demanding that they do more to protect them. Roughly 2,000 people work in these plants — many of them immigrants who speak Spanish or K’iche', the Mayan language spoken by indigenous Guatemalans — according to a survey conducted by Justice at Work several years ago. But it’s unclear how many are still on the job.

Based on workers’ reports, there is continued demand for frozen scallops in supermarkets, said Thomas Smith, executive director of Justice at Work in Boston, which provides legal services to immigrant worker centers and is one of several organizations supporting the seafood workers.

Part of the difficulty these workers have is the disconnect between their direct employers, which are usually temp agencies, and the seafood companies they work at, Smith said. The seafood companies often claim they aren’t responsible for the workers placed at their plants by temp agencies, he said, noting that one worker reported that when he delivered the letter early Monday he was told to “go talk to the temp agency,” and “if you don’t want to work, you can go home.”

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Along with calling for more protective equipment, more-thorough cleaning, hazard pay, safety plans communicated in Spanish and K’iche', and the ability to work six feet apart, seafood workers are stressing the need for paid leave if they are quarantined or need to care for themselves or a family member who is sick.

Some of these companies have long shirked the state law that mandates 40 hours of paid sick time a year, according to Justice at Work — prompting the group to also file a class-action lawsuit last week in Bristol Superior Court against the temp agency Workforce Unlimited. It seeks to recover unpaid sick-time wages that predate the pandemic.

It’s unclear if any seafood workers have tested positive for coronavirus, but working conditions in these plants could cause the virus to spread rapidly if they aren’t addressed, Smith said.

As the pandemic spreads into rural areas where much of the country’s food production takes place, hundreds of workers at meat-processing plants have fallen ill. Two of the largest slaughterhouses in America have shut down in recent days because of coronavirus infections: the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a JBS beef facility in Greeley, Colo. Meat processors in Pennsylvania and Iowa have also closed because of sick employees.

At least two people at a Tyson Foods plant in Georgia have died, according to union officials.

Amid the outbreak, the government has started allowing companies to run at higher speeds in some facilities, including at a number of poultry plants, a move labor advocates have decried as unsafe.

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“This decision is endangering blue-collar essential workers at a time when we need to think about protecting them and their communities,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the Worker Safety and Health program at the National Employment Law Project.

Material from Bloomberg News was used in this report.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.