Maria Hernández is a proud woman. Now 57, she escaped war-torn El Salvador 27 years ago and came to the United States. A single mother of seven, life here wasn’t exactly a dream, but she was able to earn a living and her family could live in relative safety on Long Island. For the past 25 years, her earnings came from a job at FDR Services, a company that cleans contaminated linens from New York City hospitals and nursing homes, at $13.33 an hour.
On April 9, the stability provided by the job suddenly disappeared. Hernández had returned to work after sick leave with a suspected case of Covid-19 and was abruptly fired with little explanation. Hernández couldn’t imagine she would be in such a predicament during a pandemic.
“Why are they taking advantage of what’s happening right now at a time when they should be protecting us?” she asked, through tears, in an interview with Documented.
Hernández first developed symptoms consistent with the coronavirus in late March. Not one to complain, she didn’t think much of it. But, when her coworkers also started to describe similar symptoms and began to call out sick like a collapsing line of dominoes, Hernández decided it was time to seek medical help. She was unable to get a coronavirus test, but after learning she worked in a warehouse, her doctor felt her symptoms were consistent with the virus and ordered her to not work until April 9. Soon after, on March 28, the Nassau County Department of Health issued Hernández an official Order for Quarantine for at least 14 days. According to Hernández, FDR refused to acknowledge her order, nor did they provide her with her New York State mandated Covid-19 paid sick leave.
“The company did something bad,” she said. “It’s not right, it’s not just what they did to me.”
Hernández was not alone: Five other FDR employees were also terminated after returning from sick leave — all with quarantine orders from Nassau County.
As the coronavirus pandemic reached terrifying heights in New York City, residents leaned out their windows at 7 p.m. every evening to applaud healthcare workers. Yet workers like those at FDR, who supported the healthcare industry, were left to battle tough work conditions with little notice. Their stories are like so many warehouse workers amid the coronavirus pandemic who perform essential functions, laboring in close quarters, often for paltry wages. As the pandemic spread, many workers in such conditions fell ill and some passed away from illnesses related to Covid-19. At FDR, the workers who followed doctor and health officials’ orders to keep their colleagues safe say they were subsequently fired.
The day before Hernández returned to work, Blanca Landaverde returned to her 9-month-old job at FDR after completing her own county-mandated quarantine. The following day, Landaverde found out her job, too, was being terminated. She argued with her employer that her termination was illegal as she had a valid doctor’s note, but was told by management it was not valid, according to Landaverde. Landaverde and her union said the company fired her for failing to properly call out from work. “That moment that they told me I was fired, I started to cry right there and then,” Landaverde said. “I have two kids to feed.”
Documents reviewed by Documented show that, like Hernández and Landaverde, the four other employees fired by FDR were also issued Nassau County Department of Health quarantine orders. Two other workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from FDR amid efforts to win concessions in a labor dispute, described being abruptly fired when they returned to work from their county mandated quarantine order.
FDR declined to comment for this piece but in a letter to its customers, obtained by Documented, FDR claimed the firings were unrelated to the pandemic and suggested the Nassau County orders were fraudulent. ”These employees were NOT terminated for any COVID-related issues,” the letter said. “Contrary to recent media coverage, they were terminated for NOT following work absence policies. Furthermore, they provided fraudulent or no documentation to support their absenteeism.”
The union representing workers at FDR believes that the workers are being punished for choosing their health over their jobs and is in discussion with the company to rehire the workers. “The company feels like they can have conversations and negotiations about this, but this is something that can’t be negotiated,” said Albert Arroyo, an official with the group that covers laundry workers the union Workers United, which is under the umbrella of SEIU. “These workers did the right thing. Not only for their family and their community but also for their coworkers in general.”
Along with their union, a host of other labor activists and elected officials have shown support for the fired workers and condemned FDR’s actions. “It is disgraceful and illegal to fire workers because they are out sick with COVID-19, ” said New York State Senator Kevin Thomas, whose district includes FDR’s facility, in a statement emailed to Documented. “No employee should ever feel pressured by their employer to put themselves, their loved ones, and their co-workers at risk, especially during a pandemic. I stand in full support of the workers who were wrongfully terminated by FDR Services.”
In response to the firings, SEIU filed a claim with the New York State Department of Labor, which is currently investigating the matter.
“Our top priority is protecting New Yorkers’ rights, health, and safety — and as regions move through the data-driven, phased re-opening process, we will continue to ensure employers are keeping their workers safe and following all appropriate health regulations,” said the state labor department’s Deputy Director of Communications Deanna Cohen, in an emailed statement. “We are aware of this situation and it is under active investigation.”
SEIU officials said the New York State Attorney General’s office is investigating FDR, though the prosecutor’s office declined to comment for this story.
Located in the ocean side town of Hempstead, Long Island, FDR employs between 150 and 200 workers at its large, industrial facility. Many of their employees are women and hail from Central America. The company handles the linens for 17 hospitals including four in Queens, as well as a number of nursing homes in the metropolitan New York area. The client list meant that FDR workers were frequently coming in contact with materials from communities that were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. According to FDR, 52 employees called out due to coronavirus-related symptoms in a single day.
Landaverde and other workers at the facility said conditions at FDR were ripe for the pandemic to spread. Much of the facility was extremely hot and suffered from poor ventilation, they said. Even though she worked with soiled hospital linens, Landaverde claimed that. during her employment at FDR, she was never once provided safety equipment such as face masks or gloves. “The company did not provide that,” she said, of masks and gloves. “Workers did bring it from the outside. Sometimes, if I had enough money, I would buy my stuff and bring it but sometimes I didn’t have enough money and didn’t bring it.”
With so many workers calling out Arroyo, the union official suspects that the firings were a move by management to discourage other workers from calling out sick. “I could only guess that probably because this is a way of intimidating these workers and the others working inside, that if you’re sick this will happen to you too so better show up to work,” Arroyo said.
John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, which operates under the umbrella of AFL-CIO, believes FDR’s actions as well the current conditions the workers endure are consistent with their history of health and labor violations. As recently as August 2019, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined FDR $17,390 for five serious safety violations that could result in death or serious harm. The investigation was launched after workers complained that the company failed to provide workers who handle soiled hospital linens with Hepatitis B vaccinations. “They put their health at risk to prevent cross contamination of linens in an effort to protect patients and healthcare workers,” said Durso. “Unfortunately, we know FDR Services has a track record of being among the worst. This pandemic has been no different.”
FDR receives thousands of dollars in tax breaks from the town of Hempstead’s Industrial Development Agency. The deal, first finalized in 2018, included the lowering of the company’s taxes from $409,000 to $280,000 per year for the first three years of the 10-year arrangement. In exchange, FDR promised to retain at least 250 jobs.
When asked by Documented if he would reassess the agreement in light of the current labor dispute, Frederick Parola, executive director & CEO of The Town of Hempstead Industrial Development Agency said that he did not know enough about the situation, but added that “the IDA does not get involved in labor disputes.”
Negotiations are currently taking place between the SEIU and the company. Arroyo, for his part, is exhausted by the whole process, but determined to stand his ground. “The only thing we ask them to do is to do the right thing by us,” he said. “Just follow the law, follow the guidelines and everything should be fine. We are not begging for anything.”
For workers like Hernández and Landaverde, times have been tough. Both are finding it challenging to pay their rent or keep food on the table. Sleeplessness nights have become commonplace. Yet they are determined to fight, publicly if need be. “I’m going to talk,” said Landaverde, “to tell the truth over and over again until I’m able to work.”
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