Mississippi plant workers call for greater COVID-19 protections after coworker’s death and as cases continue to climb

Mississippi is entering a “sea of outbreaks,” fueled by community transmission but creating dangerous working conditions in factories across the state

By Anna Wolfe and Erica Hensley | July 9, 2020

When Terrence Tanner arrived to work at Hitachi ABB Power Grids on Wednesday at 5:55 a.m., he clocked in, gathered with his coworkers and waited for management to give their daily update on coronavirus cases inside the plant.

But the update didn’t come. There had been rumblings that a worker left the plant the previous afternoon with possible COVID-19 symptoms, a runny nose, to go get tested.

Tanner, vice president of the IUE-CWA Local 83799 union, and his coworkers said a prayer and dispersed to their work stations at the transformer manufacturing plant in Crystal Springs.

Ten minutes later, a manager told everyone in the winding department, where Tanner works, to file out of the plant while they conducted a “deep clean.”

About 40 workers waited outside for nearly four hours, fearful they’d be written up if they left, before a manager came out to address questions from furious employees.

“It’s a lot of things they ain’t really just sharing with the people,” Tanner said. “My worry is we don’t know really who we’re coming into contact with in the plant. We really don’t know who got what.”

The manager asked them to return to work.

As a deadly virus sweeps across Mississippi, ABB says it’s done virtually everything it’s supposed to — short of ceasing operations and sending its roughly 300 workers home.

The company allows some employees to telecommute and requires floor workers to social distance and wear masks where distancing isn’t possible. It said it offers employees daily briefings regarding COVID-19 cases “consistent with our policy of complete transparency.” It said it’s providing sanitizer, screening the temperatures of employees as they enter and offering an unprecedented 14 days of paid leave to people who become ill with the virus. The plant typically doesn’t offer any paid sick or personal days, employees said.

The reality is that the efforts are not sufficient for workers who fear for their safety and have no option but to return to the plant each day.

Sixteen ABB employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the company told Mississippi Today Wednesday, including six active cases. Considering the size of the plant, the rate of confirmed cases among the employees is roughly five times that of the entire state population.

One worker, who was just 46, died from COVID-19 in mid-June.

Kevin Brown, a 14-year ABB employee and chief steward for the union, said his cousin recently told him he should quit his job so he can quarantine like so many Americans are doing right now. “I said, ‘I can’t afford to go home,'” Brown said.

“It’s very scary because people are dying and it don’t seem like to me that the company is concerned with anything actually other than the bottom dollar,” Brown said.

The company says it follows a “very intensive contact tracing procedure” and infected employees have all caught the virus through personal contact outside the plant, but workers aren’t buying it.

“The painter that has it right now … he told me that he don’t go anywhere. And everywhere he go, he wears a mask, ” Brown said. “And the only places he goes is work and home, so he had to catch it at work.”

“We had three people in the same department go home in one week,” he added.

And yet, the company is doing all it’s required to do. State health officials have reiterated throughout the pandemic and especially recently that their contact tracing is limited in capacity. Both State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs and State Epidemiologist Paul Byers said Tuesday that businesses are not even legally required to alert all employees of an individual COVID-19 case. For the health department’s role, officials say they work with businesses on guidelines and quarantine recommendations once they identify a patient’s workplace. The problem though, is timing those conversations and recommendations within the patient’s transmission window.

“You’re kind of always behind because of the natural time lag. We do have some public health authority to do some stuff but, you know, mostly what we’ll do is we’ll give recommendation and guidance,” Dobbs said. “Every business, every business (his emphasis), every person needs to have a safety protocol that uses the masking and the socially distanced engineering or we’re going to have outbreaks. The reality of it is, beyond recommendations and guidelines and helping with that case investigation, … there’s limited capacity to do on the ground, individual outbreak investigation like we would normally want to do. We’re just absolutely not equipped for it.”

Meanwhile, community transmission is rampant across Mississippi and adding to the health department’s contact tracing and investigation capacity.

“We’re going to be in a sea of outbreaks,” Dobbs said Tuesday, adding most cases are stemming from young people spreading the virus at social gatherings. More than 30,000 total cases and 1,000 deaths have been reported, as the case-positivity rate and rolling new case average continue to climb.

ABB’s North American headquarters maintained that the safety of its workers is its top priority.

While a corporate headquarters statement said its plants are cleaning common areas — such as restrooms, cafeteria, door handles, sinks and office areas — at least three times a day, Brown explained that disinfectant cannot be used on the metal machinery and copper wire he and his colleagues touch all day.

A worker who had tested positive left work one Friday in late June to quarantine. Another worker and union president Robert Daniels arrived to the plant on Saturday morning to work on the same machine.

“No cleaning had been done. So they’re actually exposing him to the same virus that he had because the company is not doing what we feel like they should be doing,” Brown said. “The area should have been roped off.”

“They don’t want to stop production,” Daniels said.

Brown also said plant management hadn’t replaced disinfectant in the bathrooms in the manufacturing departments for two months, claiming the product is on back order. But Brown said they did stock bathrooms in the offices where management works.

As for case reporting and safety standards, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does issue disinfectant and infected worker isolation guidance, and requires most workplaces to report work-related COVID-19 cases. But, like most coronavirus reporting, nuance in the way data is collected and shared dictates its reliability. OSHA, which regulates safety protocols in workplaces, advises safety officers to make good-faith efforts to determine if COVID-19 cases among workers are work-related. 

“COVID-19 illnesses are likely work-related when several cases develop among workers who work closely together and there is no alternative explanation,” OSHA’s reporting guidance advises. But, OSHA goes on to advise,  “If, after the reasonable and good faith inquiry described above, the employer cannot determine whether it is more likely than not that exposure in the workplace played a causal role with respect to a particular case of COVID-19, the employer does not need to record that COVID-19 illness.”

Union reps say most of the workers’ cases were among staff whose work stations are close together.

More research is emerging about how coronavirus spreads from person to person. While it’s been clear to scientists that the virus is spread through respiratory droplets, early attention focused on disinfecting surfaces as the best way to mitigate spread. Over the last few months, research has shifted to highlight the role of airborne particles in virus transmission.  Researchers agree that hand-washing, masking and social distancing are the best protective measures, but there is disagreement on how small the viral particles are and how long they can linger in the air.

Most employees at the plant are wearing masks during the workday, but in the welding shop, temperatures of 98 to 100 degrees make it “pretty much impossible to wear a mask all day,” Brown said.

The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still suggest that person-to-person transmission – spreading respiratory droplets through close contact – is the most prominent form of transmission, but growing evidence suggests the virus can linger in the air. This week, WHO agreed to review new evidence and consider updating its policy recommendations – particularly affecting indoor, closed, poorly ventilated spaces, like most factory settings.  

On May 20, the union presidents at five ABB plants in Pennsylvania, California, Missouri and Mississippi sent a letter to national headquarters asking for hazard pay, a 15 percent bump to hourly pay, during the pandemic.

“While each shop has put their own mitigation efforts in place, we still know that reporting to work means potentially exposing ourselves, our families, and our communities to the virus,” they wrote.

Union officials said the company, which just merged with Japanese conglomerate Hitachi to form Hitachi ABB Power Grids on July 1, would let managers at individual plants decide whether to grant the additional pay.

“Employees work in controlled environments that generally allow physical distancing and do not require any interaction with the public. For this reason, we have not offered ‘hazard pay,'” the company told Mississippi Today by email.

Management at the local plant, which has more direct control over the workplace conditions employees must endure, has shown even less concern, workers told Mississippi Today.

In response to the workers’ requests: “‘You’re lucky you have a job.’ That’s what she told me,” Brown said.

Daniels said plant management went as far as to obtain medical records from a worker’s doctor in order to see if he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The safety director called the worker, who was waiting for the results, to inform him he had tested negative even before the doctor called, Daniels said, and urged the employee to come back to work. Daniels said he tried to complain to the health department, but the representative he reached said they couldn’t do anything about the situation.

“For the protection of our employees, our safety director confirms that any impacted employee tests negative before returning to work,” the company said in an email in response to Mississippi Today.

Daniels himself, an employee for 22 years, was fired in March after he wrote a Facebook post, informing his followers of the developments at the plant regarding the virus. At that time, the plant had sent a handful of people home to quarantine because they had recently traveled.

Their reason for firing him? Misrepresentation. He wrote in his post that ABB had sent two people home, he said, when they had really sent four.

Daniels said the human resource officer acknowledged that he had “a good case for arbitration,” when she terminated him — and he eventually got his job back after securing an attorney and signing an apology — but the union believes it illustrated the plant’s efforts to silence its workers.

The workers have asked ABB, now Hitachi ABB Power Grids, to temporarily shut down the whole facility for deep cleaning; establish a schedule for regular cleaning of workstations; notify the workers of all COVID cases; and send workers home to quarantine for 14 days anytime they test positive or come into contact with a person who has tested positive. They await a response.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.

Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.