Essential Workers In Brownsville Worry About Health, While OSHA Lets Employers Set Own Protections | Texas Public Radio

Essential Workers In Brownsville Worry About Health, While OSHA Lets Employers Set Own Protections

May 11, 2020

The sun has not yet punched through the darkness when Alex Chavez leaves his house. 


It’s 5:20 on a Wednesday morning. Dressed in a uniform shirt, Alex carries his hard hat and lunch box to the car — ready for another day of work at the Port of Brownsville. His wife is dropping him off today, and they make a quick pit stop for breakfast tacos.

“It’s not like before, you come to work and you’re going to have a good day,” Alex said, describing the anxiety he feels on the drive. “It’s different this time, because of this COVID-19. You still gotta be cautious when you’re talking to people, how close you get to somebody, what you touch.”

Twenty minutes later, he arrives at a shipyard at Keppel AmFELS, which builds ships.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Texas continues to rise, and the state is continuing to open up. This has some workers across the state worried. But essential workers like Alex have been on the job for weeks now. He and other employees at the shipyard have been concerned about their workplace conditions and wonder what the further opening of the state means for them.

Keppel AmFELS entrance as seen on April 30, 2020 in Brownsville. Employees say the company hasn't taken proper precautions to protect them against COVID-19.
Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio

One of the first things Alex said he does when he gets to work is wait in line before clocking into work. 

“So, you go and you see some tables that are maybe 60 yards away where they check your temperature,” said Alex.

Workers wait in the pre-dawn haze to get their temperature checked, then once inside it’s time for work.

“Me, I have a helper and we get our tools ready. We connect the wires, we connect everything. The torch, everything we need, the extension cords,” said Alex describing some of the tools he works with. “The whole day we’re working together side-by-side.”

Alex said he works alongside other colleagues and that they’re building two ships. He said it’s been hard to practice social distancing while on the job.

He said the two ships they’re currently working on are container ships that will be shipped to Hawaii.

Alex said it’s hard work and the job became even more difficult in mid-April, when workers received a company memo stating that someone at their worksite tested positive for COVID-19.

A ship that is being built by Keppel AmFELS is seen on April 30, 2020.
Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio

"I was shocked. I was shocked about it," said Alex, even though he said he knew it was just a matter of time before COVID-19 reached their worksite.

Alex worries that the employee might have interacted closely with other people at the shipyard because he said it’s hard to practice social distancing.

Another worker, who doesn’t want his name revealed because he fears speaking out will hurt his job, said the company started handing out masks a couple of days before the employees learned that someone had tested positive at the site.

“They’re not making it mandatory because they know if they make it mandatory they’re going to stab themselves in the back because they know they don’t have enough supplies,” he said when they first learned the news about their sick coworker.

Now, Alex said, as of last week, the company has made it mandatory to wear a mask, but said he’s seen some people not wear the masks. 

Still the workers wonder if they’ll be protected in the future.

Kathryn Youker is with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. She said there’s a huge demand for information right now about employment rights and that her office has gotten a lot of calls lately.

“Most recently when the governor issued the reopening order that took effect, since then we’ve had a lot of questions about, ‘Do I have to return to work now that my business, my employer, has reopened and what can I do if I don’t feel safe there?’” said Youker. “And, ‘Whether I’ll still qualify for employment benefits if I refuse to return to work under these conditions.’” 

She also said that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — OSHA — and Congress have not passed any new federal laws that require companies to provide face masks to their employees or enforce social distancing during the pandemic. She also said OSHA hasn’t come out with any enforceable emergency standards for Coronavirus.

“OSHA is the agency that’s charged with creating standards and enforcing them and unfortunately they’ve decided not to do that during a pandemic,” said Youker.

Under existing OSHA standards the employer must provide safeguards such as Personal Protective Equipment. However, the problem now is that there’s limited oversight 

“OSHA is only considering onsite inspections for fatalities and eminent danger exposures related to COVID-19 with particular attention given to healthcare organizations and first responders,” said Youker.

A public OSHA MEMO shows a sample letter that will be sent to companies, in cases when an employee files a complaint, to take matters into their own hands. It asks companies to conduct their own investigation because OSHA, “does not intend to conduct an on-site inspection at this time.”

TPR reached out to OSHA about the agency limiting its investigations and why it hasn’t come out with any enforceable emergency standards for Coronavirus, but have not heard back.

Sean Goldhammer is a staff attorney with the Workers Defense Project.

“To sort of rely on the goodness of an employer to do what’s right by their employees is really laughable, especially you know where we’ve seen mistreatment of and exploitation of workers for so long,” said Goldhammer.

He said states and counties have the ability to put in regulations that would go above and beyond what the federal government requires.

“It is well in the authority of a state like Texas and the counties and it is a responsibility that they have to ensure that essential workers are protected,” he said.

At the beginning of the outbreak, Goldhammer said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott explained it was up to the counties to do what was best for their residents. Some counties responded by creating enforceable standards for employers in essential sectors.

“Now, we’re at a place where the Gov. wants to reopen the state and has produced some recommendations for employers to follow… but that are not requirements for the reopened business.” said Goldhammer. “You can’t put further restrictions on these businesses.”

Goldhammer said, as of right now, there is no enforceable state standard for employers in the essential sectors. 

Goldhammer said if workers are concerned about safety at their worksite that they should raise those concerns to their employer, preferably by writing and in a group because they will have stronger protections if an employer decides to retaliate against them for speaking up.

Alex Chavez is currently building a container ship, but he and others say their company hasn't taken proper precautions to protect them against COVID-19.
Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio

In the meantime Alex will continue to clock in because he said he needs to put food on the table at home.

“We got to think about the families,” said Alex. “It scares me everyday when I walk into work because I pray that today I hope I don’t catch anything.”

Alex and other workers said they’d like to receive hazard pay, something that Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Mitt Romney have both called for essential workers to receive.

Alex also said he’s going to try to unionize at Keppel AmFELS, something they tried doing last year when they demanded better working conditions, but didn’t get the votes needed.

Officials with Keppel AmFELS and Cameron County have not responded to our request for an interview.

According to company memos provided to TPR by workers, there are now four confirmed COVID-19 cases at the company, with about a dozen others told to quarantine at home because they had been exposed to one of the four employees who tested positive for the virus.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos.

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