Health experts and workers’ rights advocates say they’re not surprised by recent coronavirus outbreaks in the crawfish industry and warn the virus will continue to spread unless the industry makes changes to better protect workers.
On May 18, the Louisiana Department of Health announced it was investigating outbreaks at three crawfish-related facilities in the Acadiana region. The agency said it does not plan to identify the facilities, but confirmed approximately 100 people have tested positive for the virus.
At least some of the workers who tested positive were migrant workers, Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health, said at a press conference Tuesday.
The disclosure came less than a week after the state entered Phase One of its economic reopening, and after news of outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the country had been in the headlines for weeks.
“I think it's very similar to meat packing and to meat processing,” Dr. Susan Hassig said of the outbreak among crawfish workers.
Hassig is a professor of epidemiology at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and is a member of the Resilient Louisiana Commission’s Food and Agriculture Task Force, one of several groups convened by the governor to offer recommendations to various industries about how to safely reopen different sectors of the economy.
In both cases, Hassig said, people are working in close quarters, often tightly packed around a central conveyor with fast-moving food products.
“I think any setting where the workforce is in close proximity to one another for an extended period of time, it’s a potential risk environment,” she said.
For that reason Hassig said she was “not surprised” to learn about the crawfish facilities outbreak when it was announced this week.
Workers rights advocates were similarly unsurprised.
“That it's been documented maybe is the more surprising part,” said Sabina Hinz-Foley Trejo, lead organizer with the Seafood Workers Alliance.
The Seafood Workers Alliance is an initiative of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, which works on economic justice and labor issues with rural seafood workers. Many of its members are either temporary guest workers on H-2A or H-2B visas or undocumented.
Migrant workers make up a significant portion of the workforce at seafood processing facilities in the state.
According to the latest Department of Labor statistics compiled by Dr. Maria Bampasidou, professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at the Louisiana State University AgCenter, 31 Louisiana seafood processors applied for 1,467 guest workers under the H-2B visa program in the fiscal year 2019.
Trejo said she began hearing reports of crawfish processing workers getting sick with COVID-19-like symptoms as early as mid-March. Since then, the workers she’s spoken to have increasingly expressed confusion and fear about their workplaces, unclear what safety precautions their employers were obligated to provide.
Trejo said some processing facilities have not been providing enough personal protective equipment, adding protective shields between workers, or appropriately spacing workers to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
“In the processing plants, folks are peeling elbow to elbow,” she said.
One woman who peels crawfish at a processing plant in rural Louisiana told New Orleans Public Radio last week, before health officials announced the Acadiana outbreaks, that her employer provided hair nets but not masks. She spoke to New Orleans Public Radio on the condition of anonymity because she fears retaliation from her employer.
Through an interpreter, the Spanish-speaking worker said that there was access to hand sanitizer in the facility, but that employees were still working side-by-side, and that if she extended her arm she could touch the person next to her.
The state health department won’t name names.
The Louisiana Department of Health is still investigating the outbreaks and says it does not plan to release the names of the facilities where they occurred, said Dr. Tina Stefanski, regional medical director for the Office of Public Health in Acadiana (Region 4).
Stefanski said it’s important for the members of the public to know whether a major outbreak has occurred in their area so they can take extra precautions to help limit the spread of the virus, but that it’s not helpful to name worksites.
“In fact, it could actually deter our ability to work with individuals who are trying to reach out to us,” she said.
When it comes to big outbreaks like this, Stefanski explained, the health department needs to be able to investigate thoroughly, and it needs to have a good relationship with those businesses in order to do so. If businesses are named, they might not want to cooperate with investigations or they might not quickly reach out for help during future outbreaks.
“I’m sure it will happen again.”
Both Trejo, the worker advocate, and Hassig, the epidemiologist, feel future outbreaks are inevitable.
“It could happen again,” Hassig said. “I'm sure it will happen again.”
Hassig said it’s clear that the virus is present in rural communities, and that as these facilities reopen and as others continue to operate, employers need to think “very carefully” about how to keep their workers safe.
The virus will continue to spread in any environment where people are in close contact with each other for extended periods of time without adequate distancing or physical protections like masks or Plexiglass dividers between workers, she said.
“And it can transmit very, very efficiently. And that will have ramifications not just for the workers, but for the community in which they live, and the industry in which they're working as well.”
Trejo, the worker advocate, agrees, but added that employees have a role to play.
“We need to make space for workers to also feel like they can speak out and help monitor workplaces as we open up the economy to reduce the harm of this public health crisis,” she said.
Through an interpreter, former crawfish peeler Martha Uvalle, who currently works as an organizer with the Seafood Workers’ Alliance, told New Orleans Public Radio that employers will sometimes threaten not to bring guest-workers back for the next season of temporary work if they ask for changes in their workplace, so workers feel torn between advocating for themselves or increasing their chances of returning.
In a statement, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, which oversees the Seafood Workers’ Alliance, called for protections for whistleblowers and an end to deportations of seafood workers.
The Louisiana Department of Health says that under new Phase One restrictions, employees of essential businesses like crawfish farms and processing facilities are required to wear face coverings. Under the stay-at-home order, they were simply “recommended.”
Beyond face coverings and Plexiglass dividers, Stefanski recommends employers of businesses like these perform health screenings, like temperature checks, as workers show up to their shifts.
“We're trying to get back to a more normal state,” she said. “And the best way that we can do that, and safely do that...it's, again, the same basic precautions that people are probably tired of hearing us saying. But they're so true, and they're the best tool that we've got.”