Report: Will County, Chicago area essential workers faced unsafe conditions during COVID-19 pandemic

Study details lack of protections faced by those in food packing, logistics and distribution industry

Activists released a report Tuesday detailing how essential workers in the Chicago area, including Will County, have faced sickness and few protections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A collaboration of workers-right groups, including Warehouse Workers for Justice which organizes in the Joliet area, produced the report which focused on workers in the production, distribution and logistics industry, especially those who handle food.

The groups titled their report “The COVID Jungle,” as a reference to 1906 novel “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair which detailed the unsanitary and dangerous conditions of meat packers in Chicago. The study was based on interviews with about 90 workers from facilities around the Chicago area and found the majority of them faced unsafe conditions throughout the pandemic.

“This is about changing the conditions and lives of these families,” said Roberto Clack, associate director of Warehouse Workers for Justice during a virtual news conference. “1906, how much has really changed?”

Of those workers interviewed, 65% of them either got sick from COVID-19 or knew of someone in their workplace who contracted the novel virus.

The activists also emphasized the lack of protections that companies, especially third-party and temporary staffing agencies, provide for their employees.

About 85% of workers interviewed said their employer either didn’t respond to workers’ complaints, retaliated against those who spoke up out of concern or took action that did not improve safety.

If the workers got sick or were forced to quarantine, 61% of them said their employers would not pay them to stay home. The vast majority, 96%, said they were also not receiving hazard pay.

The activists argued that the data they found likely reflects the conditions faced by temporary workers who they said typically receive even fewer protections and less pay than regular workers.

“Many essential food workers are at the bottom of the subcontracting chains and receive low pay in general,” the report said. “Lack of paid sick days and quarantine pay is particularly difficult for these workers who live paycheck to paycheck.”

The activists also called on state officials to account for the specific challenges faced by these workers in planning to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

The report said it may be logistically difficult to ensure temporary workers are vaccinated as they may not always report to the same workplace during the week.

Also, the report said “workers’ sense of being mistreated by their employers in the workplace and concerns about safety violations on the job will likely discourage many from receiving vaccines if they are administered through their employers.”

Activists also cited the history of medical racism faced by African Americans and Latinos, like unethical experimentation and forced sterilization, as a significant factor in hesitancy among largely non-white workers to getting a vaccine.

They urged local health officials to partner with advocacy groups to coordinate vaccine distribution among those in these hard-hit industries.

One worker, Alfred White, 59, said he works at the Menasha Packaging facility in Bolingbrook and has worked at three other companies throughout the pandemic. He said at a previous job, he saw several co-workers get sick from COVID-19.

White argued that essential workers like him should be prioritized in the state’s vaccine distribution plan.

“Temp workers are also on the front line,” he said. “Without us, this whole engine wouldn’t be running.”

Alex Ortiz

Alex Ortiz is a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet. Originally from Romeoville, Ill., he joined The Herald-News in 2017 and mostly covers Will County government, politics, education and more. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's degree from Northwestern University.