FONDA - When Jamie Lemiszki signed up to work at the local pantry on a Thursday afternoon in early July, she expected another volunteer to join her.
Then the email arrived.
The other worker, a woman in her 50s with underlying conditions, had backed out. A COVID-19 outbreak at Montgomery County's largest manufacturer — less than a mile from the West Main Street pantry — caused the woman to reconsider.
This rural New York county of 50,000 people thought they had the virus at bay. But then a workplace cluster was revealed: Fonda's Keymark Corp., an aluminum extrusion company, discovered 97 employees infected in late June. Aside from a skeleton staff, the factory closed to pinch off the spread.
"If you think it's an adverse situation, maybe you should pull back and stay home," Montgomery County Matthew Ossenfort advised residents during a recent conronavirus briefing following the outbreak.
The factory was one of three sizable coronavirus hot spots last month in upstate New York, outbreaks that infected 250 workers and hobbled the manufacturing facilities. Their hardship serves as a stark reminder that the virus can spread rapidly and wreak havoc on a workforce and a community.
The outbreaks came just weeks after a similar situation at a greenhouse in central New York sickened nearly 200 workers, mainly migrant employees. One person, a hotel worker where greenhouse workers stayed, died.
“Those clusters will pop up,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said June 26 when he announced the the hot spots in Fonda, an apple factory in Oswego, and a quarry near the Vermont border close to the Adirondacks. “The question is: Do you find them? Do you find them quickly? And do you address them.”
Similar to the outbreak at the Madison County greenhouse, operated by Green Empire Farms, the recent cases involved employers with a history of serious worker-safety violations, according to a USA TODAY Network New York analysis of federal records.
The COVID-19 infections in workplaces across the country have ignited calls for regulators, such as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to better protect employees — whether it be office buildings and schools or meatpacking plants and farms.
“OSHA needs to be holding businesses accountable for endangering workers and the community when COVID outbreaks occur in workplaces,” said Peter Dooley, a senior project coordinator at the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, an advocacy group based Massachusetts. “We know workplaces can be the source of virus spread and that it’s preventable when safeguards are put in place."
Further, workplace risks are most acute among communities of color, reflecting the disparities in COVID-19 infections and deaths in general, according to advocacy groups and a recent federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
Among 23 states reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in meat and poultry processing facilities, 16,233 cases in 239 facilities occurred. And in the thousands of COVID-19 cases reporting race and ethnicity data, 87% occurred among racial or ethnic minorities, the CDC found.
A persistent problem at manufacturing plants heightened by COVID-19
Over the past decade, the apple packaging plant, owned by Champlain Valley Specialty of NY, was cited for five serious violations with initial fines totaling $16,110.
Most cases required an informal settlement that sought to resolve the violations, such as misuse of hazardous materials and worker injuries.
The Fonda aluminum factory, meanwhile, had 12 serious violations between 2010 and 2020. The initial fines totaled $69,075, and some cases required informal settlements. Administrative law judge decisions also reduced some citations and monetary penalties.
Safety risks that were cited included issues with electricity, machines, trucks and noise. One work-related injury involved an employee who had a fingertip amputated in a machine without proper guardrails.
The Madison County greenhouse had 12 serious violations with initial fines totaling $37,400.
Despite the history of violations at the two facilities in Oswego and Montgomery counties, federal regulators took limited measures to determine how and why COVID-19 spread among workers, according to a USA TODAY Network review.
Among the findings:
The federal Department of Labor, which includes OSHA, issued a statement detailing how it handles each case separately.
“OSHA continues to field and respond to complaints, and will take the steps needed to address unsafe workplaces, including enforcement action, as warranted,” the agency stated.
OSHA, however, pursued an on-site inspection following the Green Empire Farms greenhouse outbreak in Madison County in May, which raises additional questions about why the greenhouse warranted more serious review but the other cases did not.
The agency declined to comment on the ongoing greenhouse probe. The companies did not address previous violations, and attempts to reach workers at the plants were unsuccessful.
The state Labor Department also declined to say if it undertook an investigation of the apple plant and aluminum factory outbreaks, citing agency policy.
Deanna Cohen, a Labor Department spokeswoman, said protecting workers “has never been more important than during this public health emergency.”
“While we do not comment on specific businesses, the (Labor Department) has conducted over 27,000 inquiries statewide during this crisis, and we will continue to ensure employers are keeping workers safe and following the appropriate regulations,” she said.
One factory, one COVID-19 outbreak, one shaken community
The Keymark Corp. outbreak at the aluminum extrusion plant put the tight-knit community on edge.
The question many were asking: How many more could be infected?
"Love your neighbors and wash your hands," reads the sign in front of the Fonda Reformed Church on Broadway.
On the eastern bank of now trickling Cayadutta Creek lies the expansive Keymark factory. There, aluminum fixtures for some of the nation's most recognizable commercial buildings are crafted.
Nearly 100 of the company's 681 Fonda employees tested positive for COVID.
Unlike the greenhouse outbreak that linked back to workers staying in crowded hotel rooms, this incident was unrelated to congregant housing. Montgomery County Health Department officials traced the spread to commuting and socialization among Keymark workers.
"This was more of an issue of a social and cultural network of the folk that work at this facility," Sara Boerenko, Montgomery County health commissioner, said at a recent virus briefing.
"A lot of them travel from Utica and other areas and are very close knit as far as social circles. So, when you have people commuting together, people living together, that's when this can spread fast."
Indeed, only eight of the Keymark positive cases were Montgomery County residents. The balance were from surrounding counties.
Nevertheless, many Montgomery County residents worried about a wider spread.
Keymark workers are regular customers at the Cumberland Farms and Stewart's, two convenience stores, which sit kitty-corner to each other at the village's main stoplight.
"People were getting tired of the virus, but it's here now," Lemiszki, the food pantry volunteer, said. "People are wary. "They don't want to come out."
One in five Montgomery County residents is 65 or older, reason for many to remain sheltered after officials disclosed the Fonda hot spot.
Fifty years ago, these towns along the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal were industrial centers.
No more. And the plight is starkly illustrated in Fonda.
Storefronts sit empty, with the exception of the food pantry. Once a manufacturing hub, many production centers either left or closed, leaving Montgomery County as one of the state's poorest with a median household income of about $44,000.
Keymark is one of the last remaining remnants of the region's industrial core.
"They are a major business in our county," Boerenko said. "They are very important to our community."
The county and the plant were engaged in a cooperative effort to eradicate the virus, officials said. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Keymark tested 800 workers, which included all employees and ancillary people who may have entered the facility during the height of the spread. A majority of those who tested positive were associated with one shift in one of the two buildings.
Keymark installed a full body scan to check the temperatures of incoming workers. Everyone is back to work, the county said.
"When you walk in you put your face in a mirror and it scans your temperature," Boerenko said. "They put protocols in place where they are asking about other health related (issues)."
COVID-19 found in upstate food processing plant
Dozens of workers at Champlain Valley Specialty, a food processing facility outside of Oswego, were asked to quarantine after a number of them tested positive for coronavirus in June, the company said.
Eight-two of the 179 workers there eventually tested positive, plant manager Ben Maynard said.
It appears the outbreak originated at the plant itself, Oswego County Public Health Director Jiancheng Huang said.
Green Empire Farms greenhouse development seen from the air
Tina MacIntyre-Yee and Shawn Dowd, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
The growing cluster was identified early, which meant the health department, state health officials and the company were able to work collaboratively to stop further spread, Huang said.
The facility closed, and many employees were placed under a quarantine or isolation order.
Coronavirus testing was available and encouraged for all employees throughout this process, and the company increased its sanitation procedures since the virus was detected there.
“It was a very timely intervention,” Huang said. “It’s already been more than two weeks, and we haven’t seen any related cases” beyond the workers and family members who originally tested positive.
All employees have since been cleared to return to work.
The facility comprises a short strip of warehouses and offices along a hilly, rural road dotted with homes and small businesses. It’s situated about 7 miles outside Oswego, a small city on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. The front parking lots were nearly full last week.
The sign out front lists a number of brands, including Country Fresh and SunRich, which market prepared fruit and vegetable products.
The facility is also associated with Grab Apples, which provides sliced apple products to local schools and their distributors
The workers were deemed essential, so they continued to work through the pandemic even after the state shuttered most businesses March 22, and then instituted a phased reopening for nonessential businesses May 15.
“Our company and employees have embraced our essential role as a critical infrastructure workforce and we are working hard to help prevent significant disruption in the food supply chain,” Maynard said.
“We are doing everything we can to ensure a safe and productive work environment with an abundance of safety precautions built into everything we do at the worksite.”
How a quarry that borders Vermont became a hot spot for coronavirus
The Slate Valley encompasses a 24-mile stretch along the New York/Vermont border — from Granville in New York to Fair Haven in Vermont, Connecticut.
It’s known for its quarries where workers cut slate for decorative roofs and kitchen countertops.
The original stone cutters came from Wales and then, as the industry boomed around the turn of the 20th century, from Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Italy, Ireland, Hungary and, later, Canada, according to the Slate Valley Museum.
There’s a new group of immigrants in Slate Valley now, doing the physically demanding work of stone cutting in the quarries.
Ten quarry workers in Vermont, who live across the state line in Washington County, tested positive for COVID-19 in late June, according to the state Department of Health.
At least some of those workers come from other countries, according to local media reports, a fact confirmed in a letter from employer Camara Slate Company, obtained by the USA TODAY Network New York, in rebuttal to an article in a local newspaper.
Camara Slate, a family-owned company based in Fair Haven, Vermont, operates multiple quarries, according to its website.
Both the county and state health departments worked to reach out to the employees and trace their contacts, according to the state. But their job was hampered by a language barrier, according to media reports.
Staff from the county and the state are working to test quarry workers living in New York and their community contacts “where many employees live with their families,” said Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesman for the state Health Department,.
The Vermont Department of Health, the Washington County Public Health Service or Camara Slate did not respond to requests for comment so it is not clear how authorities believe the virus was spread.
But the circumstances of the workers’ lives appear to have been similar to the outbreak at Green Empire Farms greenhouse in Oneida, where health authorities believe the virus spread in shared hotel rooms and during bus rides to work.
The quarry workers were not lodged in hotels, but they did share worker housing.
Some lived in a “very large studio apartment” with many rooms, appliances, air conditioning and other modern amenities, according to a letter by Camara Slate.
Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program in Ithaca, knows some of the quarry workers because they once attended a workshop her program conducted for migrant farmworkers and other immigrant workers.
Once the cluster of cases was detected, her program sent videos to the workers about COVID-19 in various languages Dudley said. Before that, they had not understood much about the pandemic, she said, because even Spanish is a second language for them.
It can be difficult for underfunded rural health departments to reach such workers, making it harder for workers to get COVID-19 testing, she said.
They may hesitate to speak to government employees, fearing that they’ll be reported to immigration officials, and in some cases, counties have asked for photo IDs before doing testing, something some workers might not have, Dudley said.
She’s also worried about the publicity being given to clusters of COVID-19 cases that include migrant or foreign workers.
“When we’re living in a highly racialized, highly contentious environment,” she said, “it reinforces racist stereotypes.”
How a Madison County greenhouse responded to COVID-19
Many of the workers at Green Empire Farms, a hydroponics greenhouse in Oneida where 176 workers tested positive for COVID-19 in late April and early May, are still living in hotels where crowded conditions likely contributed to the spread of the virus, according to Madison County officials.
But the Madison County Department of Health has made sure that they’re now living with one worker per bed, not four to a room, county spokeswoman Samantha Field said.
And the department is also in the process of permitting the two hotels providing worker housing in Madison County, the Super 8 in Oneida and the Days Inn in Canastota, as migrant housing, Field said.
“The top priority of (Madison County Department of Health) is to make sure the workers are in a safe and healthy environment where they live," she said.
"There was a lot more construction that needed to be completed than originally thought, but the crew has been doing a great job getting things ready.”
The county had been waiting for proof of worker’s compensation and disability insurance from MAC Contracting, the firm that hired the workers, she said.
The permits will mean that some greenhouse workers may continue to live in the hotels if worker housing under construction isn’t big enough, she said.
The county had given the company six weeks in mid-May to finish two dorms on the greenhouse property and move the workers in. The deadline passed, but at least most of the workers should be out of the hotels soon, Field said. Two existing farmhouses on the greenhouse property now house 24 workers, she said.
And one bunkhouse for 72 occupants is finished except for appliances — with delivery expected July 15 — and will be ready for occupancy after they’re installed and the health department inspects the property, Field said.
A second bunkhouse for up to 72 workers should be completed by July 22 and will then need inspections from the city and from the county health department, she said.
“The timeline was put in place to make sure construction and the permit process got moving,” Field said.
Finding COVID-19 hot spots in New York key to limiting risk
Cuomo’s office asserted contact tracing helped contain the clusters in a matter of days, isolating the infected and quarantining those potentially exposed to the virus.
It also noted health officials appeared to uncover the aluminum factory outbreak while investigating the infected apple workers, a finding that later proved unfounded after further investigation, according to the Department of Health.
Cuomo said finding the clusters "is actually good news."
"It means the system works. You find a positive, you trace it back, you find the common denominator, and that's how you stop the spread," he said June 29.
"You look at our curve compared to the rest of the country, you see the rest of the country is going up and we're going down."
Yet in statements about the two outbreaks, Cuomo made no mention of efforts to reduce future risks of coronavirus spreading among high-risk agricultural and manufacturing workplaces — two vulnerable sectors because of often close quarters.
Asked about the issue, the state Labor Department noted it has conducted inquiries into 27,000 worker-safety complaints related to COVID-19, many of which date back to the pandemic’s early days in March and April.
About 90% of the complaint cases had been closed as of July 10, and the vast majority were resolved by employers voluntarily correcting violations of the state’s COVID-19 worker-safety guidelines and executive orders, according to information provided by the Labor Department.
But the state agency refused to discuss specific cases, which makes it difficult to determine the severity of safety and health risks. The violations can span from workers not receiving personal protective equipment to unjust employment retaliation related to COVID-19.
The virus' spread has been going on nationally among meat-packing plants in the mid-West and other food processing facilities.
The virus comes at an inopportune time for regulators. OSHA is operating with its fewest number of safety inspectors since it was created in the 1970s, according to the National Employment Law Project.
An agency spokesperson said last month the agency was “actively recruiting” inspectors.
From Feb. 1 to June 16, OSHA received 185 complaints about meat and poultry plants related to the coronavirus, according to data OSHA provided. There had been 56 inspections as of June 18.
Dooley, the official at the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, described OSHA as mostly “missing in action from the beginning of the pandemic.”
As of July 10, the agency had only issued one citation related to COVID for a record-keeping issue, he said.
“Workers are in deadly danger at the workplace and OSHA is not enforcing life-saving protections,” Dooley said. “It’s a recipe for worker and community disaster, which we are seeing in the tidal wave of surging cases nationwide.”