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Warehouse Workers in a Bind as Virus Spikes in Southern California


BLOOMINGTON, Calif. — When Thomas and Kim Rocha bought their house in 2006 in this unincorporated swath of San Bernardino County about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, they looked out on a view of snow-capped mountains and blue sky.

That view has now been replaced by the flat gray expanse of a warehouse wall.

Dozens of enormous warehouses and distribution centers for companies like Amazon and Walmart have gone up across what was a patchwork of ranches and inexpensive tract housing in the area known as the Inland Empire.

The region, made up of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, has grown rapidly as more people have fled steep housing costs closer to the coast. From 2010 to 2019, the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area added more than 400,000 residents, the most of any metro area in California over that time, with a population of almost 4.7 million.

Now, California’s efforts to at once contain the coronavirus and the economic devastation trailing in its wake have converged in the Inland Empire.

Consistent demographic data about Covid-19 cases has been difficult to compile, but in Riverside County, the rate of confirmed cases among Hispanic or Latino residents is two and a half the rate of cases among white people, according to the public health department. Statewide, Black people accounted for 9.1 percent of Covid-19 deaths, but roughly 6 percent of the population.

“These are low-wage workers and poor communities and that’s exactly who we know is disproportionately affected by Covid-19,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, the vice dean for population health and health equity at the School of Medicine at U.C. San Francisco. “Where you live, work and play determines your health — the link between those has never been more clear.”

Both counties are on a state watch list of places where infections are on a troubling ascent, although complete data about how many cases in the region could be traced to warehouses was unavailable. Workers have raised concerns over outbreaks in warehouses and similar facilities, including a sprawling Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale.

An Amazon spokesman, Timothy Carter, said in a statement that the company has taken a range of steps, including closely monitoring data from its facilities, to ensure that employees were safe.

While the company did not say how many of its Southern California employees have tested positive for the virus, Mr. Carter said, “what we see generally is that the overall rate of infection and increase or decrease of total cases is highly correlated to the overall community rate of infection.”

Local officials say the lockdown-driven surge in e-commerce presents an opportunity the Inland Empire can’t afford to let pass, as governments across California confront cratering tax revenues and staggering job loss.

“The demand is bigger than we are,” said Josie Gonzales, the San Bernardino County supervisor who represents Bloomington. “It’s bigger than one or two families. It’s bigger than what I want.”

However, community organizers have pushed back against that reasoning. The pandemic has only sharpened their attention on what they say are longstanding problems.

The Rochas said they fought the approval of the warehouse for five years. They blame Ms. Gonzales and her colleagues for favoring the interests of businesses over residents’ concerns.

Even when people see warehouse work as a lifeline, they also say it often fails to provide a living wage.

Kelwin Jackson, 51, said that when he came down with bad cold symptoms in mid-March, he was quickly placed on disability leave from his job at a plastic manufacturing plant and warehouse.

He said he was glad to return to a job where he felt supervisors had taken appropriate precautions; workers are required to wear masks and distance themselves in line to clock in or out.

Nevertheless, Mr. Jackson said, the illness pushed him closer to a financial cliff. He could barely afford to rent the room where he lives in Corona with his $13.25 hourly pay, and his disability insurance checks were even less.

“I was still struggling,” he said. Soon, he said, he plans to move into a motel.

Paul Granillo, president and chief executive of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, a regional business group whose members include some of the area’s biggest employers, like Amazon, disputed that all logistics jobs are bad for workers. And the demand for the work isn’t going anywhere.

“People need to reflect on how this two-month shutdown would have been if they weren’t able to get goods and food and supplies from Target and Amazon,” he said.

According to CBRE, the response to the pandemic has sent retailers scrambling to keep more inventory in stock so they will be better prepared for big disruptions, while lockdowns have made regular customers of people who didn’t shop online before.

Both of these trends are boosting demand for warehouse space, and the Inland Empire is one of the top places where it will be built.


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