As cases of COVID-19 spike in 20 states, L.A. workers’ rights group the Garment Worker Center is pointing to outbreaks of infections at Dov Charney’s Los Angeles Apparel factories as an example of worker safety issues during the health crisis.
Charney has been vocal throughout the pandemic, quickly pivoting his production from T-shirts to nonmedical masks back in March, and giving several interviews, including to WWD, about the move.
As an entrepreneur, he has been at the forefront of the Made in L.A. movement since 1989, when he founded American Apparel. After being fired by his board in 2014 for misconduct, including sexual harassment, he founded Los Angeles Apparel in 2016 and currently operates three factories in South Los Angeles, each with more than 100 workers.
Deemed essential businesses, his factories have continued to operate multiple daily shifts since L.A. enacted its Safer at Home order in March, making PPE for the U.S. government as well as local hospitals. Charney rearranged his factory floors, has conducted temperature checks throughout the day and provides masks to workers. But the Garment Worker Center reports several employees have described a lack of social distancing and sanitizing practices, and two tested positive for COVID-19.
“For months, the GWC has received reports from concerned L.A. Apparel workers about employees who suddenly stopped coming to work but also described that management did not announce whether absences were COVID-19-related, nor make changes in sanitizing practices,” the organization stated. “GWC member Francisco then fell ill shortly after beginning to work there in May. He received his positive COVID-19 test result on May 20, and was hospitalized for almost three weeks. The next day, May 21, a second GWC member tested positive and has not been able to return to work. Management has not reached out to either employee, and they are unclear whether paid leave will be offered to them.”
The organization is demanding more thorough cleaning of the factories, regular testing and contact tracing.
Charney told WWD his factories do follow social distancing guidelines. He has installed time clocks that don’t require touching, reconfigured machines to be 6 feet apart with dividers between them, passes out hand sanitizer several times throughout the day, and has been cooperating with city inspectors. “We just passed an audit by Cal OSHA, I don’t know what higher authority there is. If the Garment Worker Center wants to make a visit, they can. We haven’t heard from them,” said Charney. “And we are arranging testing. We have to do it one by one and work with local clinics,” he said, adding that one of his factories has been temporarily closed. “This is about community spread. We are spending an enormous amount of money trying to do this right, we have sick pay, we are allowing people to work from home..And our workers are earning up to $30 an hour and overtime. We are doing the best we can to protect people and create prosperity for them.”
“They haven’t been doing COVID testing, they asked the employees last Monday to go after work to get testing on their own, and they required them to come back with the results the next day,” said Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, relaying that a death of one of the factory workers from the disease was what spurned the testing.
Beyond L.A. Apparel, she added that she has been getting reports from a number of Southern California factories about worker safety, which has been an issue at companies big and small, including Amazon. “This problem isn’t limited to L.A. Apparel and we’re compiling information to be released soon,” Nuncio said. Complaints include not enough social distancing, staggering of shifts, enforcement of mask wearing or regular sanitation.
“Bathrooms are filthy, there is no hand sanitizer and sometimes no running water or soap, and because workers are paid a piece rate, it’s difficult. Most are making 3 to 5 cents per mask they are making,” she said of worker reports from other factories. “The minute you stop doing to wash your hands, you are losing income. And you can be reprimanded for taking bathroom breaks. We want as much attention on these conditions as possible. As workers go back, we can’t have the status quo of dirty factories and poor ventilation,” Nuncio said.
The Garment Worker Center, which has about 100 active members, is advocating for change in the fashion industry through new state legislation introduced this year. The Garment Worker Protection Act would eliminate the piece rate and expand accountability for unpaid wages. It is currently moving through the California Senate.