Jel Sert shuts down manufacturing after workers test positive for COVID-19
A West Chicago factory will suspend manufacturing operations after two workers at the Jel Sert Co. tested positive for COVID-19, fueling concerns over protections for employees to control the spread of the coronavirus.
Starting this morning, Jel Sert will temporarily close a portion of the facility to allow for a deep cleaning of the manufacturing area, bathrooms and other common spaces, a company spokeswoman said.
The food manufacturer for dessert and beverage brands still will compensate employees sidelined by a four-day shutdown, the spokeswoman said.
The distribution side of the business will continue running through the weekend. The facility will fully reopen Tuesday morning.
Earlier Thursday, Jel Sert announced it had made nurses available for all employee shifts and set new physical distancing guidelines for workers.
But an immigrant rights group has called for more aggressive steps in the company's coronavirus response.
Casa DuPage Workers Center urged Jel Sert to cease all production to allow for a total disinfection of the entire factory, one of the largest employers in West Chicago. The Immigrant Solidarity DuPage program also is asking for the company to provide two weeks of additional paid time off for all factory workers during a 14-day quarantine. Jel Sert has 1,000 employees at the West Chicago facility.
"The company is urging people if you don't want to come to work take a vacation day. Take a sick day. But we don't see that it's fair," said Cristobal Cavazos, who founded the Wheaton-based advocacy group. "We see that there's a crisis at the factory right now."
The two employees are quarantined and receiving care, Jel Sert said in a statement Wednesday. The employees are being paid, according to a company representative who couldn't immediately say when they were last at work.
Jel Sert has notified employees who worked near those workers and, as a precaution, has placed each on paid leave and asked they self-quarantine at home.
But the confirmed cases bring heightened anxieties for workers from multigenerational households worried about exposing older family members who are at higher risk of falling seriously ill from COVID-19.
"A worker called us, and he was just like, 'What do I do? I'm expected to go to work tomorrow at 6 a.m.'" Cavazos said. "'I live with parents. I have my wife. I have my children. I'm the only person that's the breadwinner in this home. I don't want to go to work.'"
Cavazos called the temporary closure a "not even halfway" measure, raising new questions about whether the company will screen all employees for symptoms before they go back to work. "They don't have enough time to clean everything. It's huge," he said of the facility.
On Thursday, Cavazos met with workers arriving to the first shift at 6 a.m. as well as workers leaving from third shift.
"They haven't seen any nurses there, at least any nurses in great numbers where everyone is being checked," Cavazos said.
He noted a lot of the workers are in their 50s or older.
"That factory has a real tie to the Latino community," Cavazos said. "I think everyone knows someone who works there or has family that works here."
As of Thursday, Jel Sert has two nurses on-site for each shift, and they will be checking employees' temperatures, the company representative said.
Among Jel Sert's best known brands are Fla-Vor-Ice and Otter Pops frozen desserts, Royal and My-T-Fine pudding mix, Wyler's and Wyler's Light drink mixes and Mondo fruit squeezers.
As a manufacturer of medical foods and Defense Department-contracted items, Jel Sert has been deemed an essential business allowed to remain open during the state's stay-at-home order.
The company said the factory is a "pharmaceutical-grade" facility that already adheres to strict safety measures. But it's now started "rigorous daily sanitation" of all communal employee areas and equipment. Jel Sert also says it's tripled the number of cleaning staff.
"We understand the importance of staying agile and responsive to ensure the safety and well-being of those who work for us and those we serve," the statement read. "As such, we are working around the clock to monitor the situation and add any additional protocols that may be needed to ensure the safety of our workers and to keep operations in our manufacturing facility running during these trying times."
Through a spokesman, DuPage County Health Department Executive Director Karen Ayala said officials do not have information about whether more employees are awaiting testing results.
"The DuPage County Health Department is assisting at the request of Jel Sert's owner/management team, to assure that the facility is taking all of the necessary steps to support the safety and health of their workers," Ayala said. "This is a public health responsibility, and we are grateful to have this opportunity with our business community."