Workers at two suburban food production plants — the Hostess Bakery at 2035 N. Narragansett Ave. in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood and the Bimbo Bakeries USA plant at 1540 S. 54th Ave. in Cicero — say they are in fear of contracting COVID-19, because their employers will not implement appropriate safety measures. Spokespeople for both companies have said in separate statements that they have implemented a number of safety measures in light of the pandemic. 

Employees who work at both plants shared letters drafted by management confirming that the Hostess and Bimbo plants each have at least one confirmed positive case of COVID-19. Workers at both plants, however, said that they believe there are more cases that the companies are not publicizing and that the companies’ responses to their complaints have not been sufficient. 

“It’s a lot of problems at that plant,” a Hostess employee, who insisted on anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said of the bakery. “They’re not keeping the bathrooms or the break rooms clean, we’re not social distancing, people are allowed to walk around with no uniform. We don’t have enough gloves and masks.”

The worker said that managers have told employees that they have ordered masks, but they are currently on back order. 

In an email statement, a Hostess spokesperson said that the company has followed the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization, “and other national and global experts.” 

She said that the company is also “taking rigorous steps” to keep employees safe, including “enhancing cleaning and sanitizing of all work areas and common areas such as bathrooms, breakrooms, and entry and exit areas; installing multiple additional hand sanitizer stations and temporary wash stations at locations around the bakery to allow employees to more frequently wash their hands; and purchasing 700 handmade masks from the local community to quickly provide workers with face coverings, while we await the arrival of previously ordered masks that remain in extremely short supply.” 

Hostess added that the company is also “adjusting line runs to optimize social distancing; installing plastic barriers at workstations and tables inside and outside to create physical separations between workers during breaks and lunches; and posting signs and placards in numerous locations with hygiene standards as recommended by the CDC to encourage appropriate behaviors.” 

 Hostess said that it temporarily closed the Chicago bakery “for a few days this week” in order to conduct deep cleaning and sanitation.” Once the baker reopens later in the week, the company will start scanning the temperature of anyone who enters the plant “to identify and keep out those with a fever or other signs of infection of COVID-19 or other infectious diseases such as influenza” and will implement “mandated use of face coverings or masks, which the company is providing.”  

The worker said that they took two weeks’ vacation because of the conditions at the Hostess plant and fear returning to work. The worker also explained that Hostess employees have been told that if they don’t return to work, they will not receive unemployment benefits, and that workers who are still on the job get $100 Walmart gift cards each month — the company’s version of hazard pay. 

In its statement, Hostess explained that it has instituted “a monthly gift card program through June for its bakery workers,” in addition to “freezing planned medical healthcare benefit premium increases for 2020-2021 for all U.S. employees” and “granting unpaid leaves of absence to any worker who is not comfortable working during the outbreak and requests leave.”  

Dennean Paul, a sanitation worker at Bimbo, said that the company had promised an additional $2 an hour as hazard pay, but “something went wrong and they didn’t give it to us.”

In an email statement, a Bimbo spokesperson said that the company is following all Centers for Disease Control guidelines and “have implemented additional measures to ensure associate safety” at the Cicero plant, including “increasing social distancing practices like staggering breaks, creating one-chair tables in the break rooms and marking the floor in areas where associates often congregate, like time clocks, to remind them to keep a 6-foot distance.”

Bimbo said that it is also requiring “all associates in our Cicero bakery to wear face masks which have been provided by the Company” and is increasing the “frequency of our sanitation processes and provided additional tools to our sanitation teams.”

Paul, whose job is to sanitize the production line, acknowledged that the company has staggered breaks and marked floors. In addition, she said, social distancing is practiced in “public areas, where our front door is, and where HR and vendors and guests come in, but once you get into the plant, there is no social distancing, because we have to work close to each other. Sometimes, we’re working shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Paul said that “we have gloves, but no masks,” adding that only supervisors and managers have face masks, and most of their offices are at the front of the building, not in the plant.” She also said that although management “was checking temperature for two days, then stopped.”

 Bimbo’s spokesperson said that the company checks the temperature “of any person before they begin work” and does not permit to return to work “if they have a temperature of 100 or above.”

 Paul, who is quoted and named in an article published by a local online media outlet in Cicero,  said that she fears that management will retaliate. She said that one worker who spoke to the news outlet has already been terminated.

 “He said, ‘I’m getting fired for freedom of speech,'” Paul said.

Steve Robinson, the president of the Northwest Austin Council, a West Side social service organization, said that he and other employees, including members of Black Workers Matter — a labor advocacy organization started by West Side workers and that includes employees at the Bimbo and Hostess plants — have in recent weeks approached management at the plants to discuss the problems. 

“We want them to at least enforce social distancing, create a temperature checkpoint and get masks — at least pay people to buy their own,” Robinson said. “We also reached out to say, ‘If you want workers to stay loyal, at least offer them hazard pay.’ These things are kind of getting swept under the rug. What are people going to do with $100 gift cards if they’re sick?”