Two Bimbo Bakery Workers Dead, Others Fired After Raising COVID-19 Concerns

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Above photo: Public Safety worker = caravan protest organized by Black Workers Matter at the Bimbo Bakery USA in Cicero, IL that took place on April 14th, 2020. Courtesy of Paul Goyette.

Two workers who were employed at Bimbo Bakeries USA’s Cicero factory have passed away due to COVID-19, according to records from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Their deaths come after the company fired two other employees who were quoted in a Cicero Independiente article published on April 7 raising concerns about the lack of workplace safety during the COVID-19 crisis.

One worker, who requested to be anonymous out of fears of retaliation, hasn’t returned to work since the last week of March due to having an underlying health condition. The worker recalls the last instance they interacted with a particular colleague and who at the time appeared perfectly healthy.

Two weeks later on April 16 that same colleague died from COVID-19, according to records from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Cicero Independiente is not naming the worker who passed away out of respect for the family’s privacy.

“I was shocked and hurt because I consider [them] a friend,” the worker said. “I used to talk to [them] all the time.”

On May 4, Rosa Almanza, another employee at the Cicero factory who worked there for about a year also passed away from
COVID-19.

“She was a nice person with a big heart,” said her daughter Maria Almanza. “If you needed help she would help you. She was so kind.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic Almanza says her mother would tell her that Bimbo Bakeries USA wasn’t providing workers with gloves or masks or doing proper sanitation. “For me it’s their fault that my mom died,” she said.

“We are deeply saddened by the deaths of two associates who worked at our Cicero Bakery,” Bimbo Bakeries USA said in a statement. “We can confirm that the individuals last worked March 24 and April 20. Our hearts go out to both associates’ loved ones.”

According to Almanza, both her father and brother who lived with her mother have also tested positive for COVID-19 and have been in and out of the hospital.

“I have a lot of anxiety and I can’t sleep,” said Almanza. “I’m always thinking of my mom. I love my mom and it hurts so bad that she’s gone.”

Prior to the two deaths, Bimbo Bakery USA workers, many of whom are organizing with a group called Black Workers Matter, accused the company’s Cicero factory of lacking proper sanitation, failing to enforce social distancing, and being slow to communicate when employees tested positive for COVID-19.

“I cried. I really cried,” said Dennean Paul, a worker in the sanitation department. “It’s really sad because all this could have been avoided if they [Bimbo] just closed down the plant and cleaned.”

Workers are also protesting what they say was an act of retaliation from Bimbo Bakeries USA.

When Cicero Independiente published a story on April 7 highlighting the employees’ complaints, two days later the company fired Gerardo Mello, one of the workers featured in the article.

“Mr. Mello was terminated for making a false statement about the safety measures we have implemented at the Cicero Bakery,” said Bimbo Bakeries USA in a statement.

Paul, who was also quoted in the April 7 article, was fired too. A week after the article was published Paul says she was injured while working. She hurt her back and felt heavy pain through to her foot and ended up going to the emergency room at MacNeal Hospital on April 13.

According to medical records she was advised by the hospital not to return to work until she was reevaluated by a physician. Paul was given a variety of medications that cause drowsiness and make her unable to operate machinery or do heavy lifting. On April 16 she saw another doctor who also issued a note excusing her from work.

After staying home for several days to recover, Paul was fired on April 27.

“Ms. Paul was terminated for repeatedly failing to report to work, failing to report her absences to the company and failing to provide any documentation to support those absences,” the company stated.

“I know it’s not about attendance, it’s about retaliation,” Paul said. “It doesn’t surprise me…it’s sad they did me like they did. I’ve been there three years and was dedicated.”

“We regard retaliation against workers for raising safety concerns (in a pandemic) as an attack on all of us and that it will not be tolerated by Black Workers Matter or us in the community,” Black Workers Matter said in a statement. “We believe Bimbo is risking the health and lives of us–the workers and community members (including Bimbo customers) with which we live.”

Paul has since filed a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency which is responsible for enforcing U.S. labor law. Under the NLRB workers are protected from threats and retaliation by their employer for advocating for better working conditions.

“Neither Mr. Mello nor Ms. Paul were terminated for raising health and safety concerns or for talking with a reporter,” said Bimbo Bakeries USA in a statement. “We categorically deny any violations of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Shortly after Mello was fired, workers and their allies rallied outside the Cicero facility on Tuesday, April 14 to protest the alleged health violations and retaliation. About two dozen cars honking their horns circled the parking lot with signs such as “Bimbo: We Won’t Die For Profit” and “Public Safety = Worker Safety.”

Since the Bimbo Bakery workers began making their complaints the company has instituted some new changes to increase safety.

According to Bimbo Bakeries USA the Cicero facility does weekly deep cleaning and disinfection of bakery lines and commonly touched surfaces. They are now taking the temperature of each individual entering the facility and those with a temperature of 100 degrees or above are not permitted to enter. The company is providing face masks and shields to all employees and have “added the services of a nurse who is also available to all associates at the Cicero bakery.”

“To encourage associates to stay home when sick, we have implemented COVID-19 pay and attendance policies,” their statement reads.

Despite the new protocols, many workers believe the changes are too little too late.

“We expect Bimbo to be ahead of the curve, not the end of the curve,” said Dan Giloth, an organizer with Black Workers Matter. “They have plenty of resources to be leaders, instead they’re dragging their feet as if this is all new to them.”

According to Giloth, Bimbo Bakeries USA “continues to operate as if it’s business as usual,” with factory lines continuing to run at normal production speeds. “Normal line speeds means normal crowding,” said Giloth.

The Town of Cicero previously told Cicero Independiente that they have conducted multiple inspections of the Cicero facility and found that Bimbo Bakeries USA was enforcing proper sanitation and social distancing guidelines as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A spokesperson for the Town did not respond to request for comment.

The union representing Bimbo Bakeries USA workers at the Cicero factory could not be reached for comment.

Cicero has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in suburban Cook County, with 2,988 people tested positive and 57 deaths as of May 28.

Workers at United Scrap Metal, another factory just down the street from Bimbo Bakeries USA, also recently held a protest alleging similar workplace health and safety violations.

These Cicero workers are joining a growing chorus of essential workers around the country at places like Amazon, Walmart, and Target who are demanding stronger protections on the job amidst an ever-worsening COVID-19 crisis and as Congress begins negotiations on a new stimulus bill aimed to address the economic impact of the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Bimbo Bakeries USA workers plan to continue pushing their demands for a safer workplace.

“It seems like a total shut down and deep clean needs to take place,” said the anonymous worker. “I’m afraid to go back to work…it’s not worth risking your life for muffins.”

“This is something that is going to affect us for the rest of our lives,” said Paul. “We will never forget something like this.”

Additional reporting by Irene Romulo.