Disaster Recovery Workers Confront COVID-19 Disaster recovery workers cleaning up after major flooding in Michigan tested positive for the coronavirus. The outbreak shined a light on working conditions in the fast-growing industry.
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'We Were Treated Worse Than Animals': Disaster Recovery Workers Confront COVID-19

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'We Were Treated Worse Than Animals': Disaster Recovery Workers Confront COVID-19

'We Were Treated Worse Than Animals': Disaster Recovery Workers Confront COVID-19

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The COVID-19 pandemic has been notoriously bad for workers in meatpacking and food production. They often work and live together in close quarters. Here's another vulnerable industry you may not have heard about - recovery workers, the people who clean up and rebuild after natural disasters. These workers are increasingly in demand as climate change brings more intense wildfires, hurricanes and flooding. And they're increasingly at risk in this pandemic, as we hear from NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Two crises collided this spring in Michigan. The state was under a coronavirus lockdown. Then a colossal storm hit, and a pair of dams failed, flooding the city of Midland. The local hospital hired a disaster recovery company to clean up the mess, including a waterlogged basement and morgue.

BELLALIZ GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) It smelled like something rotten decomposed, horrible smells.

ROSE: Bellaliz Gonzalez is one of more than a hundred workers who were brought in from as far away as Texas and Florida. Michigan had strict rules in place for essential workers during the pandemic. But Gonzalez says those rules were not followed.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) There were cracks in the safety protocols. We would start working without masks, and then the supervisor would say, we're going to go look for masks when we were already working inside without protection.

ROSE: Many of these recovery workers were recent immigrants. Gonzalez is 54. She worked as an environmental engineer in her native Venezuela before fleeing to the U.S. to seek asylum. Gonzalez says workers were put up in cramped hotel rooms and didn't get enough protective gear. The first day on the job, Gonzalez says she asked if there were going to be temperature checks and was told there were no thermometers. She was appalled.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) I felt powerless. We were treated worse than animals.

ROSE: Gonzalez never tested positive for COVID-19, but many of these recovery workers did get sick. This cluster of roughly 20 cases drew the attention of local health officials and shined a light on a multibillion-dollar industry that's growing fast as climate-driven disasters get more frequent and more expensive. Critics say the pandemic has revealed problems in how the industry treats its workforce, putting those workers at risk of getting and spreading the coronavirus, not just to each other and their families but to the communities where they live and work.

SAKET SONI: These workers are essential, but no one behaves like it.

ROSE: Saket Soni is the founder of a nonprofit group called Resilience Force, which advocates for recovery workers. Many of them are asylum-seekers or undocumented immigrants who don't speak much English and are afraid to complain about working conditions.

SONI: In a sense, they're like the farm workers and meatpackers with one difference. This is a workforce on the go that spends most of the year traveling from place to place fixing up towns, cities, homes and buildings.

ROSE: Soni also says the structure of the industry, with multiple layers of contractors and subcontractors, makes it easier for employers to avoid accountability.

SONI: That's a huge problem. It means no one owns and pays for the standards to be enforced. No one's ultimately accountable.

ROSE: After the outbreak in Michigan, the finger pointing began. Here's Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaking to member station WDET in Detroit.

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GRETCHEN WHITMER: We had some people come from out of state to help, and we're grateful for help, but they brought COVID-19 with them.

ROSE: No one knows for sure whether the workers brought coronavirus to Michigan or caught it there. But we do know what happened next. The workers left town, taking the virus with them. Again, here's Whitmer.

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WHITMER: We would have preferred if they would have quarantined here in Michigan, but they traveled home.

ROSE: Public health workers say they weren't able to communicate directly with the recovery workers because no one on the contact tracing team speaks Spanish. Joel Strasz is a local public health officer. He was also concerned about conditions for these workers.

JOEL STRASZ: You really shouldn't cram four to five people into a hotel room that aren't necessarily family members or put them in a situation where they're thousands of miles of home where they can be exposed to the virus. All of those conditions are going to exacerbate the situation, spread the virus.

ROSE: The hospital in Michigan thought the cleanup company it hired was taking steps to ensure worker safety. Julie Newton is an infection prevention nurse at the MidMichigan Medical Center in Midland.

JULIE NEWTON: I was told that they checked for symptoms and temperatures every day. And if someone had symptoms or a temperature, they were sent to be tested and were not allowed to work.

ROSE: Newton said the workers she saw were wearing masks and gloves and that she didn't talk to the workers directly because she doesn't speak Spanish either.

NEWTON: It didn't occur to me to go through and ask a bunch of questions about, you know, are you wearing your mask in your vehicle? Are you wearing - you know, how many people are staying in a room? I felt that the company that had hired them was - I guess I just expected that they were making sure that those things were happening.

ROSE: The hospital hired a franchise of Servpro, a disaster recovery company with operations around the country, which in turn hired a subcontractor. NPR spoke briefly to that subcontractor. He told us there was, quote, "a whole bunch of misinformation going around," unquote, but declined to elaborate. We also reached out to Servpro and the local franchise.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) At Servpro, our teams are trained in cleanup and care for the homes, buildings and shared spaces that keep us together.

ROSE: Full disclosure - Servpro is an NPR underwriter. The company did not respond to our questions either. Servpro's website says its workers always adhere to the, quote, "cleaning and decontamination standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local authorities." But the workers say that's not what they experienced.

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GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Bellaliz Gonzalez recorded this video on her phone in Michigan just before the workers packed into vans to go home last month.

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GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) We're all sick. Some have tested positive, others have not been tested but have symptoms already.

ROSE: One of the workers who tested positive for COVID-19 before heading home to Florida was Armando Negron. He's 56 and has survived two heart attacks. He says he worked in the hospital morgue without a mask and eventually spent six days in the hospital.

ARMANDO NEGRON: (Through interpreter) This virus feels like a fire that gets inside your body. You don't feel good sitting, standing or laying down. It's debilitating, and I feel very tired. I don't feel normal.

ROSE: Meanwhile, the demand for disaster cleanup continues in spite of the coronavirus. Negron told us that half a dozen people he worked with in the morgue went directly from Midland to another job site in the Midwest. He says two of them are still hospitalized. Joel Rose, NPR News.

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