‘Pandemic changed nothing’: Manufacturing workers voice concerns over COVID safety

Advocates and workers protest outside of Ashley Furniture facility in Leesport, Pa. (Courtesy of Make the Road)

Advocates and workers protest outside of Ashley Furniture facility in Leesport, Pa. (Courtesy of Make the Road)

Employees at a large manufacturer in Berks County say they’re not informed when coworkers contract COVID-19 and are punished for taking time off due to the illness.

About a dozen protesters assembled outside the Ashley Furniture facility last week, chanting “¡Ashley, escucha! ¡Estamos en la lucha!” [English translation: “Ashley, listen up! We are in the fight!”] Police arrived shortly thereafter and told the group to leave.

Members of Make the Road Pennsylvania, a grassroots immigrant advocacy group, and former employees of the facility who say they faced retaliation, spoke.

“People are afraid to work, because they don’t have the [COVID-19] safety precautions they’re supposed to have as an employer,” said a former employee named Juan, who claimed to be fired for taking two sick days due to flu-like symptoms.

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“There is a COVID outbreak right now at Ashley Furniture that has been made worse by management,” said Patty Torres, organizing director with Make the Road Pennsylvania.

The 29-acre building in Leesport is one of the company’s five U.S.-based manufacturing and distribution centers. Ashley HomeStore is the largest retail furniture store brand in North America and has more than 1,025 locations in 60 countries, according to the company’s website.

Inside there are both production areas — where furniture is assembled — and shipping areas. In some spots, workers said they work side-by-side, without social distancing.

(Courtesy of Make the Road)

Employee concerns highlight the struggle taking place in workplaces across America, where companies are debating how much to invest in retrofitting their workspaces to protect workers from COVID-19, with little oversight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends manufacturers space out workers along assembly lines, install barriers and hand-washing stations, and stagger arrival times to avoid clusters in areas where people clock in and out.

“The assertions made that COVID protocols are not being followed are false. Since the pandemic spread to the U.S., we have been steadfast with following the guidance and information provided by the CDC, and our state and local governments, to ensure we are taking the necessary precautions for the well-being of our employees,” wrote public relations director Cole Bawek in a statement responding to the claims.

Make the Road, which organized the protest, said nearly 50 employees have spoken with them to raise concerns about a culture of retaliation and lack of COVID-19 safety measures.

Workers said their temperatures are taken when they arrive, and they wear masks. But on the assembly line there is no social distancing, and no time for extra cleaning.

“The pandemic changed nothing. Everything continued like it was,” said a current worker who asked to be identified as Luisa, not her real name, out of fear of retaliation.

They also say at least 15 colleagues have tested positive, but that hasn’t been communicated with employees directly.

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Ashley Furniture confirmed there have been positive cases, but denied mishandling them. “We have no reported cases where transmission is believed to have occurred while working at our facility,” said Bawek. “Out of caution, we have nonetheless asked employees who may have previously come in close contact with these associates, or are symptomatic, to quarantine at home.”

Juan, who asked that only his first name be used, said he was fired for taking sick days he earned. Luisa said such recent firings discourage people who feel sick from taking time off, and in turn make all workers fearful that they are at risk.

“I want them to change, to take more consideration with everything that’s happening, and to think more about their employees,” she said.

At least one employee complaint seemed to be based on a misunderstanding. Workers and Make the Road expressed concerns that work inside the building didn’t completely pause following Gov. Wolf’s shutdown order. The production area did close, but the warehouse did not, said Juan. Per the state’s list of essential business categories, furniture manufacturing was supposed to pause during the order, but online retail, warehousing and storage could continue.

“Ashley fully complied with the Governor’s orders, and any assertions to the contrary are based on an incorrect understanding of the applicable mandates,” said Bawek.

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