In an apparent pattern of “willful misconduct,” Central Valley Meat Co. exacerbated the spread of COVID-19 at its Hanford, California facility by actively pressuring sick employees to report to work and concealing outbreaks from others, a proposed class action alleges.
According to the 68-page lawsuit, the plaintiff and nearly 200 other Central Valley Meat employees, the majority of whom are low-income, immigrant Latinx workers, contracted COVID-19 due to an ongoing string of “heartless economic decisions” made by the defendant, reportedly the seventh-largest beef packer and processor in the country.
“Defendant disregarded substantial inescapable evidence of rising infection levels among its workers; and implemented policies and practices, in plain violation of health and safety regulations and public health guidance, that facilitated rather than diminished the spread of COVID-19,” the plaintiff alleges.
The suit charges Central Valley Meat employees, due to their vulnerable status and pressure from the company, have been forced to “work silently through hazardous conditions if they want to remain employed,” adding that the work environment created by the defendant “is relevant to its flagrantly wanton and reckless response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the unfortunate, sad, and harmful outcome for its workers and the surrounding community.”
The lawsuit says Central Valley Meat failed to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic as early as March 2020, and began to hide the first cases of an outbreak at its facility the following month while deliberately pressuring sick employees to report to work. Since then, the suit relays, the number of COVID-19 cases in Kings County, where Central Valley Meat’s facility is located, has exploded, a rise the lawsuit claims is directly attributable to the defendant’s conduct amid the unprecedented public health crisis.
Per the suit, Central Valley Meat’s facility was the epicenter of COVID-19 cases in Kings County. As of May 2020, the defendant internally reported “at least 161” of Kings County’s reported 158 COVID-19 cases, the lawsuit says, meaning that the infections at the facility “accounted for more than 100% of the total reported cases in the entire county of 150,000 people.” The Kings County Department of Health has acknowledged that the significant uptick in COVID-19 cases was “attributable in large part to the meat plant,” the complaint adds.
Unlike other beef packers and slaughterhouses nationwide who suspended operations and/or cut product in order to keep workers safe, Central Valley Meat “refused to cut or slow production or implement appropriate control measures despite mass infection at its facility,” the lawsuit alleges.
Though Central Valley Meat held the responsibility to implement effective measures to contain the spread of the highly contagious virus at its plant, the company’s policies and practices during the relevant time period recklessly created a preventable risk of harm for workers, the lawsuit alleges. Despite the fact that the company reported its first positive COVID-19 case as early as April 2, and noted three additional cases on April 16, Central Valley Meat “took certain contrary steps” that served to stoke the outbreak rather than immediately institute mitigation and corrective measures, the complaint claims.
Specifically, the lawsuit alleges Central Valley Meat:
Intentionally failed to timely notify workers of their exposure to COVID-19;
Refused to send home workers with COVID-19 symptoms;
Pressured workers who called in sick with COVID-19 symptoms to report to work under threat of termination for job abandonment;
Instituted two policies that pressured employees to come to work when sick out of fear of losing their jobs or earning disciplinary points;
Made it difficult for employees to take breaks throughout the workday to wash their hands or clean and disinfect work stations;
Refused to implement adequate workplace controls, i.e. keeping workers properly separated, in order to stem the spread of COVID-19; and
Allowed and pressured those who tested positive for COVID-19 to return to work without proper quarantining, screening, monitoring, and/or other protective measures.
According to the case, the plaintiff worked near at least one worker who tested positive for COVID-19 in April 2020 yet was still allowed to come into the facility. Per the lawsuit, this led the woman, who then tested positive herself, to transmit the virus to her boyfriend. The suit claims, however, that the plaintiff was unable to take several days off of work for a protected leave of absence to recover from her condition due to two policies implemented by Central Valley Meat as a direct result of the pandemic. From the complaint:
“Due to the pandemic, Defendant instituted a Bonus Appreciation Policy and an Attendance Incentive Policy which cause employees who do not work all hours in a scheduled week to lose incentive pay and bonuses. Employees suffer a negative consequence for failing to have perfect attendance, even if the sole reason for the failure of perfect attendance is infection with COVID-19 or for otherwise taking [Family Medical Leave Act]-protected leave.”
Under the Bonus Appreciation Policy, an employee would stand to earn an extra $100 per week for working all available hours in a week, the suit says. A worker who missed any time, even for being sick or disabled, would be ineligible to receive the bonus, the case claims. For Central Valley Meat’s Attendance Incentive Policy, a worker would lose $2.50 per hour for every scheduled hour not worked, even for reasons related to illness or disability due to COVID-19, according to the complaint.
Moreover, the plaintiff claims she was punished by the defendant by receiving negative points under Central Valley Meat’s no-fault attendance policy, and was subjected to “interference” by company management who “coerced, threatened, and pressured” the woman to refrain from taking time off of work. Per the suit, Central Valley Meat’s no-fault attendance policy—under which the accrual of 18 points can subject a worker to termination—pressures sick employees to report to work and violates several worker-protection laws.
The lawsuit says that although Central Valley Meat has implemented some precautionary measures, including temperature checks prior to each shift, after stories of the COVID-19 outbreak at the plant began circulating, the efforts are “too little too late.” More from the complaint:
“The company continues to discourage employees from taking sick leave both expressly and through its Incentive Pay Policy and No-Fault Attendance Policy. It also has not provided adequate and sufficient face coverings for employees, nor developed effective controls to ensure proper social distancing, cleaning, and disinfecting. Similarly, Central Valley Meat does not adequately provide or enforce breaks to enable adequate handwashing and other sanitization procedures by employees. It also is not adequately conducting contact tracing of all persons known or suspected to have been infected with COVID-19 while physically present at the Hanford Plant. Based on information and belief, COVID-19 cases continue to be reported at the Hanford Plant.”
ClassAction.org’s coverage of COVID-19 litigation can be found here and over on our Newswire.