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Wife Of El Milagro Worker Who Died Of COVID Speaks: 'They're Not Protecting Us'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A local food plant will soon be open for business, weeks after an employee died.

But workers tell the CBS 2 Investigators they're still concerned about their safety inside. Some workers at the El Milagro tortilla plant on the southwest side said the virus is spreading inside, as others have died And they believe those deaths could have been prevented. The plant was closed and sanitized and will soon reopen after some previously planned construction is completed.

CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey spoke to the widow of one employee who recently died. His name was Roberto Escobar. He had worked on the line at the plant for more than a decade before he tested positive for COVID-19 and soon died.

He was one of the employees who thought the plant should have been shut down weeks before it was.

His partner, Gabriela Hernandez was his partner and wife of nine years.  Holding the urn with his ashes, Hernandez said her husband started wearing a mask very early in March, but was discouraged by a supervisor.

Escobar was worried about his health, but continued working because he didn't want to lose his job.

"He told me there are people that are out because they have symptoms," Hernandez said. "But the company's not saying anything and they're not protecting us."

His symptoms began in mid-April and he soon tested positive. He died on May 1.

"The ambulance picked him up and we never saw him again," she said.

Hernandez and several other current employees tell the CBS 2 Investigators they're now aware of four virus-related deaths. Hernandez argued that El Milagro should have closed long before their first death on April 26.

A current employee, who asked CBS 2 not to reveal his identity, agreed.

"It needs to be a safe place for everyone," said the employee.

He added that even with extensive social distancing precautions in place, he did not feel safe. When he tested positive for COVID-19, he said they required him to send a doctor's note to excuse him from his shifts.

"Be more human. Because I think sometimes they only see the workers like a replaceable part, like a machine," he said.

In a letter to employees, El Milagro said its protocols were consistent with guidance from the CDC and that employees had the option to wear their own masks before they were provided.

Hernandez believed the precautions should have been taken sooner.

"We're suffering now. and I want them to do something," she said. "Because I don't want another family go through what I'm going through."

CBS 2 with several employees for this story, although many were not willing to be interviewed for fear of losing their jobs. It is important to note that its recent shutdown was voluntary.

El Milagro released a statement to CBS 2:

The COVID-19 virus is terrible and confusing, and our hearts go out to our employees, our customers and our community dealing with the fear and uncertainty. From the very earliest days of the pandemic,

El Milagro has been continuously following CDC and State of Illinois guidance for making our workplace as safe as possible, including:

*Encouraging all employees to not come in to work if you or someone in your household is sick or has been exposed

*Any employee sick, exposed directly or indirectly was told to quarantine

*Enhancing daily sanitation in our plants, beyond the stringent standards already followed as a responsible food manufacturer, including hiring janitors whose sole job is to sanitize surfaces hourly

*Sanitizing work stations before every shift change

*Encouraging the use of masks and when they were commercially scarce, having reusable masks made by local tailors for each employee until we could obtain masks; employees were always permitted to bring their own if they chose. (Employees have always worn vinyl gloves and uniforms on the line)

*Staggering our work shifts and lines to accommodate social distancing

*Adding protective partitions in work spaces

*Adding touchless faucets and additional hand sanitizer dispensers

*Providing more areas for breaks and lunch to accommodate social distancing; limiting the number of people in bathrooms or locker rooms at one time

*Issuing plastic face shields to all our employees

*Providing virus testing for employees

*Urging employees to use these safe practices at home, shopping, and when using public transportation.

We voluntarily closed our plant to allow everyone at least a two-week quarantine and prevent spread of the virus. While it was closed, we elected to do some deferred construction, so we will reopen when that is completed.

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