Two crises collided this spring in Michigan. The state was already under a coronavirus lock when a catastrophic storm hit and a couple of dams failed and flooded the city of Midland.
The local MidMichigan Medical Center ̵
“There were cracks in the security protocols,” Gonzalez, an asylum seeker from Venezuela, said in Spanish through an interpreter. “We started working without masks and then the supervisors would say, ‘We will look for masks’, when we were already working inside!”
“It smelled like something rotten, shattered,” she added. “Like something dressed, sharp. It was awful.”
Michigan had strict rules for important workers during the pandemic, but Gonzalez and other workers interviewed by NPR said those rules were not followed. The workers said they were placed in cramped hotel rooms and were not given enough protective equipment.
Many of the disaster relief workers who came to Midland fell ill. A cluster of about 20 confirmed cases of coronavirus attracted the attention of local health officials. It also shone a light on a multi-billion dollar industry that is growing rapidly as climate-driven disasters become more common and more expensive.
“These workers are important, but no one behaves like that,” says Saket Soni, the founder and director of a nonprofit group called the Resilience Force, which advocates for recovery workers.
Like workers in other industries hard hit by the corona virus, Soni says that recovery workers run the risk of getting and spreading the virus – not just to each other and their families, but to the communities where they live and work.
“They are somehow farmers and meat packers … with a difference,” Soni said. “This is a workforce when you’re on the go … who spend most of the year traveling from place to place, fixing cities, cities, houses and buildings. And that’s a further vulnerability.”
Soni says the pandemic has revealed longstanding problems in how the disaster recovery industry treats a workforce that cleans and rebuilds after hurricanes, wildfires and floods. Many of the workers are asylum seekers or undocumented immigrants who do not speak much English and are afraid to complain about working conditions.
Gonzalez, who is 54, worked as an environmental engineer in his original Venezuela before fleeing to the United States to seek asylum two years ago. She says she became ill with a high fever in Michigan but tested negative for COVID-19.
Gonzalez says she was horrified by the working conditions. The first day at work she says she asked if there would be temperature controls and was told that there were no thermometers.
“We were treated like animals,” Gonzalez said. “They didn’t care about our well-being and our lives, they didn’t care that we were in the middle of a pandemic.”
After the outbreak in Michigan, finger pointing began.
“We got some people from the state to come in to help, and we are grateful for help, but they brought along COVID-19,” Prime Minister Gretchen Whitmer said in an interview with the WDET member station in Detroit last month.
No one knows for sure whether the workers brought coronavirus to Michigan or captured it. But we know what happened next: The workers left town and took the virus with them.
“We would have preferred if they had quarantined here in Michigan, but they left home,” Whitmer said.
Public health workers there say they could not communicate directly with the recovery workers because no one in the contact tracking team speaks Spanish.
“You really shouldn’t squeeze four or five people into a hotel room that isn’t necessarily family members, or put them in a situation where they are thousands of miles away from home where they can be exposed to the virus,” said Joel Strasz, a Bay County public health official, Mich., Where the workers lived.
“All these conditions will really make the situation worse, spread the virus,” he said.
MidMichigan Medical Center believed that the decontamination company it hired took steps to ensure workers’ safety, according to Julie Newton, a nurse for disease prevention.
“I was told that they checked for symptoms and temperatures every day,” Newton said. “And if anyone had symptoms or temperature they were sent to be tested and not allowed to work.”
Newton said that the workers she saw wore masks and gloves, and that she did not speak directly to the workers because she did not speak Spanish either.
“It wasn’t enough for me to go through and ask a lot of questions” about the workers wearing masks or how many people lived in a hotel room, Newton said. “I was just expecting them to make sure those things happened.”
Servpro is a disaster company with franchises around the country, including the one in Michigan that is hired by the hospital for cleanup efforts. Neither Servpro nor the local franchise responded to comment requests. (Editor’s note: Servpro is an NPR underwriter.)
Servpro’s website says its employees always follow “standards of cleaning and remediation set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local authorities”
BTN Services, a Houston-based company that provides cleaning and staffing services, was a subcontractor for the hospital job. CEO Alejandro Fernandez told NPR that there was “a whole lot of misinformation going around” but refused to elaborate and did not respond to interview requests.
The industry’s structure, with multiple layers of contractors and subcontractors, makes it easier for employers to avoid responsibility, says Soni of the Resilience Force.
“It’s a huge problem,” Soni said. “That means no one owns and pays for the standards to be enforced. No one is ultimately responsible.”
Workers at the hospital job say they asked for the workplace’s COVID-19 contingency plan, which the state requires under a series of executive orders signed by the governor. But the workers say they never saw one.
When workers in Michigan began testing positive for coronavirus, they say they were put on vans that drove them back to Florida and Texas. Several workers said they asked for a quarantine in Michigan but were told that they would have to pay for their own housing if they stayed.
Bellaliz Gonzalez recorded a video on his phone in Michigan, shortly before workers packed in vans to go home. “We are all sick, some have tested positive, others have not been tested but have symptoms,” she said in the video.
One of the workers who fell ill was Armando Negron. He said he worked in the hospital morning without a mask before testing positive for COVID-19. He went home to Florida, where he landed in the hospital for six days. Negron, who was born in Puerto Rico, is 56 years old and has survived two heart attacks.
“I coughed so hard for 10 to 15 minutes straight, I felt my chest explode,” Negron said in Spanish through an interpreter.
“This virus feels like a fire coming into your body. You don’t feel good to sit, stand or lie down. It’s debilitating and I feel very tired, I don’t feel normal,” he said.
At the same time, the demand for disaster cleansing continues despite the coronavirus. Negron says that half a dozen people he worked with in the morning went directly from Midland to another workplace in the Midwest. Two of them, he said, fell ill and have been hospitalized.