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California union didn’t hoard millions of protective masks

April 2, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: Just three days after Attorney General William Barr announced the Department of Justice will prosecute hoarders of personal protective equipment needed to combat the coronavirus, a California union suddenly located a stockpile of 39 million N95 masks. 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. That’s not what happened. The United Health Care Workers West chapter of the Service Employees International Union simply connected state governments and hospitals to a vendor. The union did not have a stockpile of masks. 

THE FACTS: Social media posts are falsely suggesting that a California union was hoarding crucial medical supplies during the coronavirus outbreak, only giving up masks once the federal government made it a crime to stockpile them. 

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On March 23, President Donald Trump signed an order making it a crime to stockpile personal protective equipment needed by medical workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Barr also announced his agency was investigating people who were hoarding or price gouging medical supplies.

Three days later, the Services Employees International Union chapter announced it was connecting several counties in California, the state, and hospital networks with a vendor that could provide 39 million N95 masks. 

Fringe news sites and social media posts falsely suggested the union had been hoarding the masks all along, only handing them over once the federal government had threatened to prosecute such activity.

“Hmm... SEIU Union in California Suddenly Finds Mysterious Stash of 39 Million Face Masks -- 3 Days After AG Bill Barr Announces They’re Going After Hoarders,” one headline stated. 

The union didn’t stock or sell the masks, Steve Trossman, a spokesman for the union chapter, confirmed to The Associated Press. It searched for leads and potential suppliers for the masks. 

“We had nothing to do with the transactions,” Trossman said. “We found suppliers, we had hospitals and health systems that needed supplies and connected them.”

Trossman declined to provide the name of the supplier, saying that the union has received hundreds of inquiries from agencies around the country about the supplier.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California governor’s emergency services office, also confirmed to the AP that the state did not purchase the masks from the union, and instead bought them from a vendor. 

“No purchase was made directly from the union,” Ferguson said.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536