When an employee at the Divine Flavor produce warehouse in Nogales tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, administrators immediately sent all employees in the repacking division home and referred them for testing before they could return to work.
However, after an employee at GP Produce Solutions in Rio Rico tested positive for the virus on Friday, May 8, warehouse operations continued as normal throughout the weekend and employees weren’t tested until the following Monday.
“We didn’t halt operations… We were allowed to work because we were approved by the health department,” warehouse manager Fabiola Cuen told the NI on Wednesday, adding that approximately six more employees eventually got tested and that their results all came back negative.
County Health Director Jeff Terrell confirmed that GP Produce Solutions maintained communication with his office regarding their operations during the time of the incident, and said they accepted the county’s guidance through the process.
“Agriculture and food are considered critical infrastructure and therefore (are allowed) to continue operations,” Terrell said of the company’s decision to stay open. “They had precautions in place to try to minimize exposures.”
Still, the contrasting responses by Divine Flavor and GP Produce Solutions highlight the discretion that employers in essential industries have in responding to real or potential COVID-19 infections among their workforce. It also shows how critical infrastructure workers, who face heightened stress as well as health risks when a co-worker tests positive, in many ways are subject to the luck of the draw when it comes to their employer’s response.
Cuen insisted that GP Produce Solutions followed the necessary guidelines in response to the positive test at its warehouse, which she said involved a person who worked loading pallets of produce, not handling or inspecting it. And she said the company had previously implemented extra precautionary measures, such as keeping truck drivers out of the warehouse to avoid contact with third-party individuals.
She declined to elaborate on any other measures the company might have taken to protect or monitor the health of its employees.
“We did what we were supposed to do. We followed protocol,” she said.
At Malena Produce in Nogales, warehouse manager Agustin Manriquez said the company has been dogged by rumors of a coronavirus outbreak that were spawned by “confusion” rather than facts.
Even so, he said, the company opted to take extra steps to protect its workforce.
In early April, he recounted, several City of Nogales employees gathered outside of the warehouse on 250 N. Smokey Lane to work on a project near the Nogales Wash.
As the city employees continued their work and Malena Produce kept third-party individuals outside of its building as a safety precaution, Manriquez said, rumors soon began that the city had put the warehouse on lockdown after several employees tested positive for coronavirus.
To dispel those rumors, “the company sent all employees to get tested that week – roughly 18 to 20 employees that work in our two warehouses,” Manriquez said.
He added that Malena Produce had initially been ridiculed by some community members for not allowing truck drivers or other third-party workers inside the warehouse as a precaution.
Among other safety measures, he said, administrative staff checked workers’ temperatures twice a day, first when employees arrived to work and a second time after they returned from their lunch breaks.
The company also put its roughly six employees who were 59 and older on paid leave to avoid putting the more vulnerable individuals at risk inside the warehouse. On Wednesday, Manriquez said, that period of paid leave had reached eight weeks.
“The owners decided to place them on paid leave for the rest of the season that they would normally work to not affect them economically,” Manriquez said.
As for the younger employees at Malena Produce, he said, the company raised their gross salary by 35 percent about six weeks ago.
“For those of us who stayed, it’s still a risk whether you like it or not… but since we’re an essential industry, we had to continue operating with new measures,” he said.
‘This is a pandemic’
Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, a trade organization representing the area’s produce importers, said the local industry is working with the county to make sure that all companies understand the proper procedures to address coronavirus-related situations.
He forwarded an email that was addressed to and apparently distributed among FPAA members, detailing the recommended protocol for produce companies to follow if an employee tests positive for coronavirus.
According to the email, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that critical infrastructure workers “may be permitted to continue to work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.”
The email further suggested a list of places where employees could get tested for coronavirus in Nogales, Pima County and Phoenix.
If rapid testing were to become available in Nogales, Manriquez said, Malena Produce is considering requiring employees to get a weekly test at the company’s expense as an additional safety measure.
But Cuen of GP Produce Solutions expressed more resignation about the health crisis.
“This is a pandemic. Everybody will eventually get sick,” she said, adding: “(We’re) very fortunate that it was only one employee.”