'I've Never Been So Disgusted by a Businessperson': Employees Speak Out as Charney Says There's 'No Outbreak' at Los Angeles Apparel
After local authorities ordered his manufacturing facility shut down due to more than 300 positive COVID-19 cases and four employee deaths, Los Angeles Apparel founder Dov Charney said the company was in the right to continue operating. His reasoning? The numbers found in his company are “commensurate” with the COVID-19 rate in South Los Angeles overall, and therefore not indicative of an outbreak.
“The local hospital here, [Kedren Community Health Center,] of the 7,000 cases they tested for between the period of April 15 and June 30, they had 1,050 cases, which is 15 percent,” Charney told Business Insider.
As of July 14, Los Angeles Apparel, which had been using its manufacturing facilities to create items like hospital gowns and masks for health care employees, has seen 375 positive tests among around 2,290 employees. That’s 16.3 percent.
Dov Charney, formerly of American Apparel, was staging a comeback by making masks. Then investigators discovered 300+ coronavirus cases and four deaths at his Los Angeles factory.
— Tiffany Hsu (@tiffkhsu) July 13, 2020
Despite Charney’s insistence that “there’s no outbreak here,” those are outbreak numbers.
“Any suggestion that this is an acceptable level of infection rate in a workplace is plain wrong,” a Department of Public Health spokesperson also told Business Insider. “Business owners and operators have a corporate, moral and societal responsibility to their employees and their employees’ families to provide a safe working environment.”
Charney has long been a controversial figure within the apparel industry. He shook up the fast fashion world with his original brand, American Apparel, but was ousted from its ranks after accusations of indecency and abusive actions toward former employees.
After starting up Los Angeles Apparel, Charney worked to restore his reputation by committing to living wages and sustainability. During the pandemic, he earned some good will by using his company’s capabilities to manufacture much-needed PPE.
Behind the scenes, however, it might have been his own ambition that exacerbated the issue within Los Angeles Apparel. Daisy Gonzalez, of the Garment Worker Center advocacy group in Los Angeles, alleged to Business Insider that Charney brought employees back in too great of numbers and without proper protocols in place.
One employee of the factory, who remained anonymous, told her that the company went from 400 workers to more than 1,000 without proper safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the facility.
Employees told the LA Times that after their coworkers seemingly “disappeared” with no explanation from management, they took matters into their own hands and demanded help.
“We got up, and we said we’re not going to work until you promise to clean the machines,” an employee told the LA Times. “We wanted them to practically close the factory so they would clean.”
Employees also alleged that company management kept them in the dark about when people got sick.
Charney disputed that allegation.
“I’m not saying if there was someone in one building, we told the other building, but we told the people who worked proximately to them,” he told the LA Times.
Two employees who tested positive for COVID-19 told The Guardian that while they were instructed to wear masks, there was “no consistent enforcement by management for any of these measures,” and that there were too many people to properly socially distance.
“There were too many people to separate everyone,” one employee said. “We didn’t fit.”
She added that with such a high number of people in Los Angeles looking for work—especially work that came with the consistency of being an “essential” worker when other businesses were shut down and higher pay than other factories—created a system where management didn’t care about protecting them, knowing they could fill their spot if they left. One employee who spoke to the Guardian started working at Los Angeles Apparel after she lost her job cleaning hotel rooms due to the pandemic. She started working at the factory in April, trimming loose threads off of cloth masks, and by May had started showing symptoms and tested positive.
Charney, for his part, refutes these claims that his company was not implementing precautions.
“That’s garbage,” he told Business Insider. He added that if the city government was so concerned with social distancing, they would not have allowed the protests following the death of George Floyd that spread across the country. “Why didn’t the mayor’s office and the police and everybody say, ‘We’re not going to allow demonstrations?’”
He also told Business Insider that he wasn’t aware of employees decrying a lack of social distancing, saying the first he heard of it was while on the phone with the reporter.
“Or maybe yesterday. I heard it in passing,” he said.
Charney also said that it’s up to the workers themselves to police their social distancing.
“We live in a free society,” he said. “If you walk outside, you go to the bathroom, whatever it’s not like Big Brother can be there all the time.”
Ultimately, however, employees are going to put up with more at a time where a dollar is hard to come by, much less $14.25 an hour thanks to essential work status. Some workers accepted the risk of getting sick.
“We are working very hard,” Charney told the Guardian. “We reorganized our factory many times. We can’t control social distancing—what people do at home, or when they go out to eat. To even imply that it’s because we’re not doing our duty is laughable.”
Officials who visited Los Angeles Apparel saw that employees were not socially distancing at times, such as when they collected checks, and that the company allowed outside vendors to come to the factory to sell things to employees.
Charney admitted that things were not perfect within Los Angeles Apparel, and admitted fault for not getting a public health permit for one of the factories he opened during the COVID-19 pandemic, but said that the forced shutdown and portrayal of negligence is “political.”
“I’m not alleging conspiracy,” he told Business Insider. “I’m alleging that certain people at the department are misleading the public because they’re looking for a political win.”
The fact is that it’s difficult to fully create social distancing within a facility so full of people, especially if they were rushed back as one former employee alleged. Workers are constantly handing items back and forth, and simple hand washing might not be enough to quell the spread of a virus.
“That was his attitude through this whole thing—‘Oh, it’ll be fine,’” one employee told Business Insider. “‘We’ll just wash our hands. I think you’re worrying about it too much.’ I’ve never been so disgusted by a businessperson.”
Charney says he's still committed to reopening, and reopening safely. Some employees have taken notice to new systems in place since the controversy struck.
While temporarily allowed to reopen last week, employees did notice a change. There were “gallons” of disinfectant, and they were given instruction on best practices while seated six feet apart.
Charney also told the LA Times that they’ve added touchless faucets, better ventilation, better screening practices and increased training for cleaning staff in the hopes of reopening.
“The opportunity here is, we’re going to have the best factory,” he said. “If this thing lasts for a long time, we have the best opportunity to keep going and keep everybody safe.”