essential workers

They Sewed Protective Masks and Gowns. Who Protected Them?

Three garment workers on L.A. Apparel’s deadly COVID outbreak.

Photo: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Photo: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Last summer, at clothing manufacturer Los Angeles Apparel’s headquarters in South Central L.A., there was a deadly COVID-19 outbreak. At one of the company’s three warehouses, more than 375 workers tested positive for the virus, and 6 died. It’s a cruel irony that many of the workers — a majority of whom are Latino — who were hired to sew lifesaving masks and hospital gowns say they not only contracted COVID but also lost their incomes. After all this, the company still claims to have an “ethically managed environment” and “family” of workers.

At the helm of the company is Dov Charney, the infamous co-founder of American Apparel, who was ousted in 2014 after a slew of sexual-harassment allegations and lawsuits, all of which were settled (Charney has denied all allegations of harassment). His comeback company, founded in 2016, is nearly indistinguishable from American Apparel; on billboards around Los Angeles, they advertise the same candy-colored bodysuits with the same high-flash, X-rated aesthetic. At the start of the pandemic, Los Angeles Apparel secured lucrative government contracts, including one with the U.S. Air Force to produce 10 million masks and hospital gowns. (Charney also claimed to secure contracts with other government agencies worth millions.)

The company, which prides itself on creating jobs in the U.S., hired scores of independent contractors and surged into overdrive to meet demand. At the same time, the company flouted public-health regulations: On June 26, the L.A. County Public Health Department cited 17 “flagrant violations” and the next day forced the factory to close for three weeks, prompting an OSHA investigation; they were fined $102,000. Concurrently (and rather conveniently, given the fine), the company also received a $2.5 million PPP loan. (And they have continued to rake in revenue in part by partnering with the likes of Kanye West, who spent $918,000 with them on his campaign apparel.)

These days, the company is still open and back to business as usual. Earlier this year, organizers from the Garment Worker Center, an L.A.-based workers’-rights group, say they met with Los Angeles Apparel leadership to advocate for cutting high quotas, improving social distancing, and notifying workers who came in contact with COVID-positive co-workers — but according to a GWC representative, the company denied responsibility. In response to the accounts in this article, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Apparel says they hired consultants during the pandemic to ensure they were following all health and safety protocols and that “all Los Angeles County Department of Health protocols were followed … including notifying workers of adjacent exposures,” which also “had to be balanced with HIPAA protocols,” and “in nearly all cases, no workers were in a position whereby they had prolonged exposure within six feet of each other.” The people we spoke with tell a different story. Here, three garment workers talk about their experiences of finding — and then losing — work at L.A. Apparel and how it impacted their physical and mental health.

Dorca, employed for ten months

“They don’t care about people’s health or people’s lives. But you’re poor and you need work. So you put your own life at risk.”

I’ve lived in L.A. for 21 years. I worked there for almost a year, like ten months. We made pants, sweaters, masks, a little bit of everything. I attached pockets, stitched sweatshirts, and pressed waistbands. First they said that we had to produce 1,000 masks a day in order to earn minimum wage. When they saw that people could make more, they wanted more [from everyone]. But they wanted to keep paying the same. They would lay you off if you were too slow.

We [workers] all used masks, but the managers didn’t. Some of them didn’t believe in the virus. If you stopped for a minute, to go to the bathroom or just to wash your hands, they would clock you. [A spokesperson for the company denies this, saying that bathroom breaks are not monitored.] [My manager] would police people. She would yell at us and threaten to fire us. She would say, “Hurry up” or “You’re not any good” or “I’m going to fire you.” She didn’t care if your arm or your back hurt from lifting. They don’t care about people’s health or people’s lives.

But you’re poor and you need work. So you put your own life at risk.

The managers never told us when people tested positive. We would just notice that they didn’t come to work and wonder. There was a mechanic who had the virus, but no one told us. Just two hours after he fixed my machine, I found out that he was sick. The next day he was in the hospital, and I was so scared. When people were dying, they said that no one had caught the virus or died there. They were hiding things.

In January, I felt sick, so I went to get a COVID test. It was positive. I had a lot of chills. I felt like my bones were breaking. I had a fever and a cough. I tried to get better quickly because they didn’t pay for the days I was at home. I went back on a Monday, after only a week.

I’m not afraid to tell the truth. So [in March 2021,] I spoke up and said that it wasn’t okay how they threaten workers. [My manager] said, “I’m the manager here, and I can do whatever I want. Go ahead and complain to whomever you want, no one is going to listen to you.” She fired me just like that. [A spokesperson says “no such narrative” was brought to their attention.]

Ana, employed for three months

“It’s difficult to think about a co-worker someone I saw today or talked to a week ago and then find out the next day that she died.”

I’ve been working in sewing for the last 20 years, and I know how to use a lot of different machines. But because of the pandemic, all the companies closed and I was out of work. Me, my husband, and my 24-year-old son, a security guard, all pay bills together. They received unemployment, but it wasn’t much. Just $300 every two weeks.

[At L.A. Apparel,] we tried to keep our distance and use masks, but there were a lot of people, and the spaces there are really small. The managers would get very close to us, near the machines, to talk. For us, it was critical to know that someone who got very sick with COVID was working right next to you. But they didn’t tell us. It was terrible to think, What if I get sick? What if I make my family sick? It’s difficult to think about a co-worker — someone I saw today or talked to a week ago — and then find out the next day that she died.

Last year, there was a morning when I fainted in the bathroom. It was 5 a.m. and I felt dizzy. Like I could barely stay on my feet. My body was trembling. I was nauseous. It felt like everything was crushing my body. I was watching myself like I was paralyzed. I learned later it was a panic attack. I told my manager I wasn’t feeling well, but they didn’t take it seriously. They acted like I wasn’t even there. I was treated as if I’m inferior, as if my labor and I, in general, don’t matter.

[The managers] gave a lot of incentives. They required a certain amount of daily output. It was so much, like 1,000 or 2,000 masks a day between the entire team. Soon they were pressuring us and saying that they would raise our salaries above minimum wage if we made more. All day they would be telling us, “Hey, you aren’t producing, you aren’t finishing, and you have to hurry up.” But they didn’t ever offer us extra money. I have never worked like that; it was tremendous pressure. When teams didn’t reach the production level they demanded, they would fire people. That’s why they were always hiring. Hiring and firing. [A spokesperson denies this allegation, calling it an “unlikely scenario.”]

Even me, they fired me in the end. I was doing my best, keeping my distance, making an effort. They told me there simply isn’t any work, but I watched them hire new people [for the job I had sewing masks]. I had to go look for other work. In the three months it took to find a new job, I could collect only about $400 of unemployment.

Maria, employed for four years

“At one point, I felt really dizzy. I started throwing up because I was so nervous. I thought I had COVID; I thought I was dying.”

I’ve lived in South Central Los Angeles for about 15 years. I live with my husband, sister, and my 7-year-old daughter. Me and my sister [who also works at L.A. Apparel] send money to my mother in Mexico.

I started working [at L.A. Apparel] in 2017, making T-shirts. Last year, I had to work on the masks. Now, I sew tops, leggings, bike shorts. We used to have disposable masks that some workers would wear anyway [before COVID-19] because the machines that cut cloth get dusty. There are a lot of threads in the air. But during the pandemic, they ran out [of disposable masks].

You know, we’re Mexicans. We are really friendly with each other. Before, we would hug and share drinks. Now, we don’t share food or sit close.

In April, they started taking people’s temperatures. I don’t think that it was very helpful because it turns out some people didn’t have strong symptoms, so they kept going to work. People were just grateful to be working and didn’t want to be replaced or miss out on pay. Some of the people hired to enforce the COVID rules themselves didn’t follow them. I would see them not social distancing, despite the fact that they were telling us to social distance.

Until the company made tests mandatory [in June 2020], I didn’t realize anyone was getting sick. But actually many people were COVID-positive, including my sister.

I had to stay home for two weeks in May because I was around my sister. I watched the news and saw how bad the cases were getting. I felt panicked. At one point, I felt really dizzy. I started throwing up because I was so nervous. I thought I had COVID; I thought I was dying. I told my husband, “If anything happens to me, you have to take care of our daughter.” And he told me,I think you’re having a panic attack.”

I got a COVID test and it came back negative. I felt so nervous about everything though that I felt physically sick. It was a nightmare. And I was not paid for the full time I was gone. I argued on my behalf and eventually got paid for two out of the six weeks I was unable to work, but I had to fight for it. I was frustrated. It doesn’t matter if you have COVID or not — if you need to quarantine, you should be paid. It’s not fair that after I went into quarantine, the company shut down for a little bit, so that’s almost six weeks that I didn’t bring home any income to my family. I need to pay my babysitter. I need to pay rent. [A spokesperson asserts the company provided two weeks pay in compliance with local ordinances.]

I wished that they would pay us more because we were working really hard in the beginning of the pandemic to make masks. We should’ve been given some kind of bonus.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

They Sewed Protective Masks and Gowns. Who Protected Them?