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Union seeks stronger COVID-19 protection at Islandia furniture factory

Union representatives for the UFCW Local 2013 say some companies aren't taking the proper COVID-19 safety precautions, which they believe has resulted in at least 19 of about 80 workers at an Islandia office furniture factory testing positive for the coronavirus in the past two months. Credit: Craig Ruttle

A spate of coronavirus infections at an Islandia factory and warehouse illustrates the need for employers to take stronger measures to protect workers and stop the spread of the virus, officials with the union representing facility employees said.

Tomás Domínguez, 51, a shop steward for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2013 at the Islandia factory and warehouse of Innovant, an office furniture designer and manufacturer, said at least 19 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past two months, and one man died. That’s out of about 100 factory and warehouse employees, Local 2013 president Louis Mark Carotenuto said.

Eleven of those who tested positive were in the woodworking area of the facility, out of about 25 employees there, and several others were in the shipping department, Domínguez said.

Innovant doesn’t do enough to isolate employees who were in contact with those who test positive, he said.

"The company says if you’re sick don’t come to work," Domínguez said in Spanish. "The problem is some people [with the coronavirus] don’t have any symptoms."

Scientists say those without symptoms can still spread the virus to others.

Innovant officials did not respond to requests for comment.

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The Suffolk County health department is investigating the cases, as it does all positive cases, officials said.

Francine Streich, field director for Brooklyn-based Local 2013, said employees are only allowed time off to quarantine if they test positive. In one instance, four employees rode together in a car to get tested and two tested positive — but the company denied the request by the two who tested negative for a paid quarantine, she said.

It typically takes several days after infection for a test to come up as positive.

"We know these people cannot afford to stay home for two weeks without pay," Carotenuto said.

He called for the company to abide by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, that employees without COVID-19 symptoms who were in close contact with an infected co-worker stay home for 14 days.

Domínguez said he got a coronavirus test on Sept. 28 and worked through Oct. 2 because he did not have symptoms. He received a positive result late on Oct. 2 and has been at his Brentwood home isolating in a room for more than two weeks to avoid infecting his wife and two daughters.

The daughters tested negative, and his wife, who never got tested, never had symptoms, he said. But Streich said other workers’ family members have tested positive.

Carotenuto said the company has failed to professionally disinfect the workplace, despite the multiple positive test results.

Companies like Innovant should shut down operations in sections of their facilities where there is an outbreak, he said. But, he said, "It’s all about corporate greed, company greed. They don’t want to shut down. They don’t want to lose that dollar."

Carotenuto and other labor leaders are pushing for legislation, the NY HERO Act, that would require businesses to implement safety protocols, with penalties for violations.

The infections at Innovant came after more than 60 of about 700 union employees at the Bellport and Ronkonkoma warehouse and distribution centers for Bellport-based Quality King Distributors Inc. tested positive from March to May, union officials said.

UFCW is pushing for better safety protocols at Quality King because, although there have been no known cases since May, "as soon as there’s one person, it’s going to spread again" because of a lack of control measures, Streich said.

Quality King did not respond to requests for comment.

UFCW sought a safety inspection of the Bellport facility for months, but it was only after the union filed grievances and threatened to submit complaints to the National Labor Relations Board that the company acceded to the request, Carotenuto said.

There have been a few improvements since last month’s inspection, such as hand sanitizers next to where workers clock in, Streich said. But there is not hand sanitizer elsewhere in the work area, the company doesn’t disinfect work spaces and it has not posted COVID-19 safety information in Spanish, even though many workers speak little English.

Streich said workers are afraid to speak out after Quality King Oct. 15 fired 12 employees who attended a rally during their off hours urging stronger coronavirus safety measures.

State Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), whose district includes the Bellport distribution center and who represents many workers in both warehouses, wrote a May 15 letter asking Quality King for stepped-up control measures but said she never got a response.

"Quality King for months has ignored countless calls, letters and pleas by union and government officials to ensure that health and safety protocols are put into place at their facility to protect their workers," Martinez said in an Oct. 14 statement, adding that the NY HERO Act would "hold businesses such as Quality King accountable."

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