Without COVID-19 Vaccine, LA's Garment Workers Are Hanging by a Thread

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Olegaria Ruiz at her job in a Los Angeles garment factory in June 2020. (Courtesy of Estela Perez, Garment Worker Center)

Olegaria Ruiz is among scores of undocumented front-line workers who feel left out of California’s new age-based COVID-19 vaccination plan.

“More than anything, we need the government to help us get the vaccine, too,” said Ruiz, 46, who’s worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles for 27 years.

Ruiz says she doesn't know of any co-workers, including those over 65, who have gotten the vaccine yet. A lot of them, she says, lack internet access and don't know how to navigate the state's complicated sign-up system.

Throughout the pandemic, Ruiz has worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week to sew masks, hospital gowns and surgical hair nets for doctors and nurses, she says.

But she says she’s not always paid for all the hours she works and sometimes earns less than minimum wage.

Ruiz sews face masks at her station in a garment factory. (Courtesy of Estela Perez, a member of the Garment Workers Center.)

At the same time, it's difficult to socially distance in sweatshop factories, where upward of 50 seamstresses can often be sewing in one room. To make matters worse, Ruiz says many of her co-workers workers aren’t being provided face masks by their employers.

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“There’s no social distancing, and people don’t use masks,” Ruiz said. “[Some of my co-workers] sometimes can’t afford to buy masks because we aren’t being paid what we’re supposed to — a minimum salary.”

Ruiz worries about getting sick, but feels like she has no choice but to show up to work. As an undocumented worker, she doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefits or government stimulus payments. For now, she has to focus on keeping a roof over her family’s head.

“We’re afraid to work, but we have to do it,” said Ruiz. “How are we going to pay rent? How are we going to pay bills? We can’t force our children to live on the street.”

It’s hard to know how bad COVID-19 outbreaks have been in sweatshop factories because many of them operate in the shadows, and workers like Ruiz frequently move between jobs.

“I don't believe the ICU numbers tell the whole story as far as how many people are going to live and die because of reopening [California's economy],” said Alex Sanchez, a field organizer with the Garment Worker Center, which advocates for the estimated 45,000 garment workers in Los Angeles. “I think it's way too soon. And I don’t believe we are going to be able to flatten the curve if we still have people out there at high risk not having access to a vaccine.”

Sanchez, 44, contracted COVID-19 in late December, likely from his son, who works at an Amazon warehouse where there have been several outbreaks. He had no preexisting conditions, but was hospitalized in the ICU for nearly two weeks. He's now home, recovering with the help of an oxygen machine.

From his living room, he's been trying to help older garment workers who meet the age requirements to secure vaccine appointments online.

In between doing hourly exercises to expand his lung capacity, Sanchez has also been advocating for all garment workers — and other low-wage essential workers who have to perform their jobs inside — to get the vaccine as soon as possible.

Alex Sanchez, field organizer for the Garment Worker Center, who is recovering from COVID-19, holds his two children while breathing oxygen. (Courtesy of Alex Sanchez.)

“Those are the people that should be focused on first,” Sanchez said. “But it just seems like they don't have a voice or big lobbying power, that they're being excluded from the vaccine delivery, even though they are producing masks and gowns for the health care community.”

“I had the privilege of having health care to go to the doctor, but most folks don't,” Sanchez added. “It might be funny to say, but maybe I needed to walk in somebody else's shoes in order to understand what they're going through. So maybe I had to live it in order for me to be able to preach it. So I'm glad I'm here. I'm just trying to do whatever I can to keep everybody safe.”