Essential employees demand stronger safety measures before returning to work

About a dozen essential employees protested outside W.G. Products, a perfume factory, in Totowa. It was the first stop of a day-long protest around the state calling for stronger safety measures before returning to work.

Carmen Torres says she contracted COVID in March while working at the factory. Torres claims she was fired when she spoke up about safety concerns in the workplace.

“When I spoke up at work about the unsafe conditions they said I was complaining and to stop. And when I didn’t, they fired me,” she said in Spanish.

The nonprofit Make the Road New Jersey organized the protest. Organizers say workers were silenced and not protected during the COVID outbreak.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, workers were asking for gloves, and masks, and breaks to wash their hands, and no one was listening to them. The problem is that if no one is listening to them and they don have a way to enforce the rule, people are going to get sick,” said Make the Road New Jersey Director of Worker Organizing and Policy Adil Ahmed.

“There is no safe hygiene and cleanliness in the workplace, so we don’t feel safe. And there’s no one in charge to make sure it’s safe and clean when we spoke up,” said grocery store worker Yamileth Escobar in Spanish.

“In terms of companies holding themselves accountable to the number of people getting sick and being required to report that and shutting it down if there are outbreaks. There really is no way of knowing,” Ahmed said.

Workers stopped at seven different locations, including a cookie factory where they demanded safer working conditions.

“I worked for a temp agency and they put me here Jimmy’s Cookies to work and I got sick here at the factory,” said Rose Lopez.

Through a translator, Felix Gallardo described the unsafe conditions at Jimmy’s Cookies that he says got him sick.

“They didn’t give us protective equipment. The mask that they gave us was almost transparent and made of material that’s used for hair nets. When we had lunchtime, we ate one on top of each other and we worked only about 1 foot away,” she said.

Owners of the factory videotaped and watched the protest but declined to speak on camera only saying that “no one had to work” and that they were “misrepresenting the company.”

During a Zoom press conference held by Assemblywoman Valarie Vainieri Huddle, she spoke about the steps legislators are taking to ensure employees are safe in the workplace.

“We must ensure that you have the power to raise your voice without retribution, and that’s what this legislation calls for,” she said.

“We risk many more New Jerseys becoming ill. We made such great progress. It’s really important that workers are important as we reopen the economy,” said Fara Cullinane, director of Make the Road New Jersey.