When Marali Rubio arrived in Michigan the last week of May, the immigrant from Venezuela was eager to help the Midland area recover from its flood by cleaning up buildings.
But the 50-year-old woman from Florida and others said they grew concerned when they were not provided adequate safety equipment, social distancing rules, and were crowded into hotel rooms, two for each bed.
Even without a pandemic, the work conditions were hazardous, but with the coronavirus spreading, it was even more worrisome, they said.
Rubio was one of about 200 legal immigrant workers who arrived from Texas and Florida to work in MidMichigan Medical Center – Midland, which had hired a company to bring laborers to clean up their buildings, including a morgue with bodies and body parts.
“There was no social distancing at any point,” Rubio told the Free Press in Spanish through a translator. “Their temperature was never taken. Some of them had masks on, some of them did not have masks on. Some of them had gloves. Others did not. The work basically was to demolish and clean the basement of the hospital, and they were specifically taken to the morgue of the hospital.”
The workers worried that “the morgue had been contaminated from people who had been infected by COVID,” said Rubio, who is now recovering after testing positive for the coronavirus. She recalls seeing baskets with organs inside the hospital morgue.
Two workers interviewed by the Free Press said the conditions they faced in Michigan were worse than in other states where they had worked. Compounding the problem was the lack of Spanish-speakers in the county health department and hospital. They also said that the state had inaccurately reported that their COVID-19 infections came from out of state.
“They were not taking care of us,” Rubio said.
After a week of working in Michigan, about 50 workers developed symptoms of the coronavirus, with dozens of them testing positive, according to Saket Soni, founder and the executive director of Resilience Force, a group that advocates for workers who help areas hit by natural disasters.
“These are subhuman conditions and no one deserves them,” Soni told the Free Press.
“They’re also dangerous conditions. These workers weren’t provided N95 masks. Their temperatures weren’t checked daily as it should have been. They were crowded into hotels, despite CDC guidance saying they shouldn’t be, and they contracted COVID-19. They were treated as disposable. The conditions were … deplorable.”
The conditions they faced are part of a broader trend of immigrant workers being exploited when they help areas affected by natural disasters, he said. The system of using subcontractors allows the abuse to flourish, with companies and contractors often absolving themselves of any blame by pinning the cause on the subcontractor, said immigrant advocates.
The Midland hospital, a part of the University of Michigan health system, had hired Servpro, a Tennessee-based company that does cleanups and restoration, to get the workers; a Servpro franchise based in Michigan worked with the hospital, Soni said. Servpro then subcontracted with BTN Services of Houston.
The workers also cleaned buildings at other locations, including Northwood University in Midland, said Resilience Force.
A spokeswoman for the University of Michigan Health System referred inquiries to the Midland hospital. Officials with MidMichigan Medical Center – Midland did not return emails and a phone call seeking comment about the workers.
In a statement to the Free Press, Servpro said it has a strong record of safety.
“The health and safety of workers on the job site, whether Servpro franchise employees or subcontractor employees, is always priority No. 1,” Servpro spokeswoman Kim Brooks said. “Servpro franchises are also required to follow CDC and OSHA guidelines, including the use of recommended PPE when appropriate. Franchises have been advised that if any teammate comes to work showing any symptoms, they are to be sent home immediately and evaluated by their health care professional.”
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