Viscofan workers speak out against employer’s COVID-19 policies

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DANVILLE, Ill. (WCIA) — When Ashley Baldwin let Viscofan management know that her two boys were sick, she was told to either take two weeks off work without pay or use her vacation time.

“As a single mom,” she said, “that didn’t give me much voice.”

Baldwin cares for a 12-year-old and a one-year-old child. Both had a low-grade fever and a bloody nose, so she took them to the doctor and they were given a standard flu test.

“Because the test came back negative, they went ahead and quarantined them,” she said. Now, Baldwin said her concern is that she has to use her vacation time just because her kids got sick.

“I was trying to save it until it was closer to my kids’ birthdays so we could take time off and do stuff,” she said.

“When I do go back to work, what happens if I get sick,” she asked.

A company memo submitted to WCIA by an anonymous employee stated the Vermilion County Health Department notified Viscofan Tuesday that one of their employees had tested positive for COVID-19. It stated they implemented their “risk mitigation plan” in order to contain further spreading of the virus, and they would double their efficiency bonuses.

However, for workers like Baldwin, they are not satisfied by the actions Viscofan has taken to protect their employees from COVID-19, or with the incentives they’ve offered to their laborers who continue to work during a global pandemic.

She, along with her co-worker Phillip Johnson, both spoke about how Viscofan is still hiring people that need to be trained and that does not allow them to practice social distancing. Johnson said they’re “bringing people in left and right” and they have more people training “now more than ever.”

“When you’re training them, you’re within 2-3 feet of them at all times,” Baldwin said. “You’ve got to show them what to do.”

She also said she was in contact with an employee who was sent home to quarantine because they were training with the employee who tested positive for COVID-19.

Johnson said he found out through Facebook his co-worker tested positive for the virus. The first thing he did, he said, was try to call in sick because he had a 3-5 minute conversation in passing with the person who contracted COVID-19.

“The company told me if I didn’t have contact with them for over 20 minutes, it wasn’t a concern,” Johnson said.

After making a few more calls to the human resources department and a security guard who routes calls, he was told he was allowed to take a two-week quarantine, but “our jobs are not secured.”

“We may not have a job when we get back,” Johnson said he was told by his supervisor.

“They’re not giving us sick leave. We have seven attendance points, so we can take off seven days a year. After that time, we’re fired.”

So Johnson said he thinks the company is “just carrying on like business as usual. They’re just not doing anything.

“They’re saying what they have to say to keep the plant running and they don’t care about the consequences to the employees.”

Mario Valdez, who works as a master operator for Viscofan, said the only thing the company had done so far to protect their employees is to enact social distancing in the break room.

“Other than that,” he said, “you have people working next to each other. We have to help each other when stuff goes crazy on our machines.”

“If Viscofan started handing out face masks earlier and listened to what was reported on the news,” Valdez said, and got the things they needed, “it would have been fine.”

“The thing is,” he said, “they say this is the first known case. But there was a case that worked in skinless that was quarantined over a month ago but we haven’t seen her since.”

He also said that there are about 20-30 people who work in cubicles less than six feet apart from each other.

“The company provided them with masks and with wipes,” Valdez said. “We tell them our concerns and they don’t do anything for us at all.”

Valdez added he’s ‘not satisfied at all’ with the efficiency bonus the company has offered, which has been in place for about half a year.

“It started as $200, now we barely get $45 because they say we’re not meeting our quotas,” he said. “But they tell us in the last six months they increased sales, increased this or that, but we don’t see any of that. They keep telling we’re doing poorly, but sales and customer satisfaction are up.”

Baldwin said the extra bonus “is not any type of effect.”

“Babysitters are asking more,” she said. “Prices are going up in the stores. They’re talking about how everyone wants more casing and they have to make the demand.

“They’re making money right now while they’re trying to save money at the expense of their workers’ health and their lives.”

Tim Miller, President of the United Food Commercial Workers Union Local 686 said they were told their casing products are “flying out of the plant” as soon as they are produced.

“They want to keep that up, one, for money aspect,” he said. “Sure, it’s a business. Also, because customers are screaming for it. They can’t get it anywhere else in the US than from us.”

Miller said their union board approached the company in a labor-management meeting on March 24th, to propose shutting down some of the machines.

“That would lessen the time you would have to be near somebody,” he said. “It would also lessen how many people would have to be in the plant at the same time.”

So, Miller said that “for the sake of the employees” that Viscofan needs to shut a machine or two down, just to be safe. 

He added the confirmed case of COVID-19 that was announced Tuesday could change management’s thinking.

“We’ve had several people who have self-quarantined and put in a request for two weeks out,” he said. “It’s going to cut the workforce down. It could very well happen that the company would have to shut the machines down because they don’t have enough people to run the machines.”

According to Miller, the company is now issuing masks for their workers to use on the job. Starting Friday, he said they will start doing temperature checks on employees as they come in.

Those with fevers will be sent home. Miller said management has yet to decided whether they will be paid for that day after coming in.

Baldwin said Viscofan is expecting workers to keep the masks and reuse them for three days in a hot workplace environment.

“You wouldn’t wear the same shirt for three days straight,” she said, ” why would you expect them to wear something on your face for three days straight?”

A face mask issued to a Viscofan employee. They are expected to reuse them for up to three days.

Ramiro Jimenez works for Viscofan and said he is a single father with two daughters. One has asthma, so he doesn’t want to “take something home to her.”

He wrote a statement addressed to Danville Mayor Ricky Williams, Jr. that was posted to a public Facebook group. He stated Viscofan is doing nothing about the situation, and asked the mayor for “guidance or intervention.”

“If the facility does not do the right thing and give us financial protection we have a serious obligation for our families and community,” he stated. “We will be forced to walk out with no safety net.”

In a Facebook post Wednesday, Williams addressed than many have “reached out in various ways with concerns about a particular business operation.” He advised them to contact the Illinois Attorney General’s Workplace Rights Bureau at 844 740-5076.

WCIA sent multiple email messages and called Viscofan management for comment. They did not respond Wednesday.

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