California farm workers strike after dozens test positive for coronavirus

SALINAS, CALIFORNIA - MAY 1, 2020: Farm workers harvest kale in the Central Valley of Salinas, California Friday May 1, 2020. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A group of about 50 farm workers went on strike Thursday at a California pistachio farm, demanding free face coverings, gloves and information from the farm’s owner after they said they learned from the media that dozens of their coworkers tested positive for the coronavirus, a union official said.

Workers picketed in the central California city of Wasco outside Primex Farms, which grows pistachio nuts, said Armando Elenes, a United Farm Workers official. Their demands also include better sanitation measures and more information from the company, which had not told them about the positive cases, he said.

“They wanted to keep everything confidential, and at the same time, people getting contaminated,” Elenes said.

Workers learned of the cases about two weeks ago when fellow workers started getting sick, but only heard that dozens had tested positive from a report on local television, Elenes said.

Primex, which has 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) of pistachio orchards in California and also grows other nuts and dried fruits, confirmed that 31 people at the company were infected.

The farm about 150 miles (241 kilometers) north of Los Angeles has about 400 workers and is following health guidelines to prevent virus spread, said Mojgan Amin, the company’s chief operating officer. It is closing its plant from Friday to Monday for a deep cleaning and hired a mobile testing facility to offer free testing to all workers on Monday, Amin said, adding those who test negative can return to work.

“As an essential business, Primex expects to resume normal operations in the near future,” Amin said in an email.

Elenes said a group of about 50 workers was participating in the strike and would decide each day whether to continue. He said the workers were not union members but were being supported by UFW. Amin refuted the assertion, saying no employees were striking and just 10 workers were involved in demonstrations.

Veronica Perez, one of the workers, said the company never held a meeting to tell them what was happening and only began providing free masks a few days ago. Previously, she said they sold cloth masks for $8 each.

The company has since brought on new workers to fill in for those who have gotten ill but hasn’t advised them of the outbreak, she said.

“They continue to hide everything from us,” she said. “All we are asking is that all our rights are fulfilled and they treat us as essential workers and give us a safe place to work.”