Black workers say Cicero bakery unsafe

Black Workers Matter says Bimbo, employer of many West Siders, has not adequately protected them against COVID-19

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

The Black Workers Matter advocacy organization is accusing a Cicero bakery operated by Bimbo Bakeries USA — the U.S. arm of Grupo Bimbo, a Mexico Coy-based manufacturing company — of endangering the safety of its workforce, much of which comes from Austin and North Lawndale. The group also alleges that the racist practices under the plant's previous owner, Aryzta LLC, still persist.

The Cicero plant, which is located at 1540 S. 54th Ave., makes Entenmann brand "Mini-Bite" muffins found in many West Side supermarkets and convenience stores. As a food producer, it was considered an essential business under Gov. J.B. Pritzker's stay-at-home order and was allowed to stay open. But while the company announced that it was taking precautions, two workers have passed away and two additional workers were allegedly fired for publicly sharing concerns about health conditions.

On the afternoon of June 18, Black Workers Matter organized a press conference in front of the plant, demanding that the company slow down production speed to allow for better social distancing. And they argued that Bimbo Bakeries hasn't done nearly enough to root out the plant's culture of racism. They also said that the plant's leadership should better reflect the demographics of its workforce.

Arysta LLC previously owned the Cicero plant and the Galewood plant at 2035 N. Narragansett Ave. As previously reported by Austin Weekly News, Black Workers Matters alleged that the company went out of its way to avoid hiring Black workers, and when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit forced them to fire undocumented Hispanic workers, the Black workers that were hired in their place received little training, low pay and were more readily punished.

In 2018, Arysta sold the Cicero plant to Bimbo Bakeries and the Galewood plant to Hostess.

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Bimbo Bakeries USA insisted that it "continue[d] to exceed all CDC COVID-19 guidelines."

The spokesperson added that Bimbo implemented several measures, including having a nurse on site at the Cicero bakery, facilitating social distancing by "marking locations on floors to indicate six-foot distances at entrances and time clocks" and "staggering shift start times to limit associate interaction."

The company also limited the number of tables and chairs in the break rooms and created "additional break areas." All employees get face masks, the company insisted, and they can get face shields upon request. The company also stated that they were working with the union to implement "COVID-19 pay and attendance policies that encourage sick associates to stay home."

"Nothing is more important to us than our associates," the company spokesperson stated. "In addition to fostering an inclusive working environment, we remain committed to the health and safety of our associates and their families as well as the broader Cicero community."

The company acknowledged the Cicero plant's corporate culture, but insisted that it was working to address that.

"Since purchasing the Cicero bakery two years ago, we have invested in this facility and worked to overcome the checkered history of race relations that existed prior to our acquisition," the spokesperson stated. "We have and will continue to work diligently to create an environment that is safe and equitable for all associates."

Dan Giloth, a community organizer who has been helping Black Workers Matter with community outreach, said that the Cicero plant's current workforce is about 40 percent African-American — down from 50 percent a few years earlier.

"There's a handful [of African-American workers] that live in Cicero, but the majority live in North Lawndale, they live in Austin," he said.

Giloth estimated that, out of 350 to 400 people who work at the plant, around 150 to 180 workers come from those West Side communities. And he said that, under Bimbo, the number of Black managers has dropped to one, who is a second-shift supervisor.

Giloth said that he doesn't blame Bimbo for this, since the discriminatory practices go back prior to the company's ownership, but he wants them to "walk the walk" and address the situation.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in late March, Bimbo Bakeries issued a statement detailing much of what the company spokesperson outlined in the recent email statement.

But Black Workers Matter co-founder Anthony Stewart said that the Bimbo statement does not reflect the reality at the Cicero plant.

"They failed, truly failed, to provide proper [Personal Protection Equipment] and safe distancing practices among workers who are on the line," he said. "Bimbo has continuously put profit over people by running their lines at 100 percent production speed rather than reducing speeds to accommodate fewer workers on the line (i.e. social distancing)."

Stewart pointed to the coverage by Cicero Independiente online media outlet, which reported that, as of the end of May, two workers passed away from COVID-19. It withheld the name of the worker who died on April 16 at the family's request and identified the worker who died on May 4 as Rosa Almanza.

The Cicero Independiente also reported that two workers who previously spoke to the paper on record about their concerns about inadequate COVID-19 protections inside the plant - Dennean Paul and Gerardo Mello – were terminated. Bimbo Bakeries gave the reason for Mello's firing as "making a false statement about the safety measures we have implemented at the Cicero Bakery," but they denied that Paul's firing was in retaliation.

Paul was reportedly injured a week after speaking to Cicero Independiete, and she couldn't return to work on a doctor's advice. Even though she reportedly provided doctors' notes excusing her from work, Bimbo Bakeries fired her 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."

"Bimbo has not been a great corporate steward to all the Black and Brown communities, primarily Black communities, by allowing equal hiring from the nearby Black communities," Stewart added.

Giloth said, given that Grupo Bimbo's safety record was inexcusable, particularly since the company has a plant in Wuhan, where the COVID-19 pandemic reportedly originated and where people knew about COVID-19's risks earlier than those in the United States.

"[We want them] to make distancing a priority," Giloth said. "Reconfigure the lines, adjust the lines to the point where people don't have to be unsafe."

Contact:
Email: igorst3@hotmail.com

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