While the workers’ compensation system was established to shield employers from civil actions, in certain circumstances employers may still bring a cause of action directly against the employer. Essential workers in Nebraska have sued their employer for operating a meatpacking plant under conditions that were unsafe during the COVID-19 pandemic. This case highlights the need for employers to formulate worker safety protocols during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Meatpacking workers in Nebraska filed a federal lawsuit yesterday challenging treacherous COVID-19 conditions at a meatpacking plant that put employees and the surrounding community at grave risk. The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Nebraska, and Scottsbluff attorney Maren Chaloupka.
The lawsuit was filed against Noah’s Ark Processors, which operates a beef processing plant in Hastings, Nebraska. The plaintiffs include former plant employees and a local pediatrician who treats the children of meatpacking workers and people with COVID-19.
Essential workers at meatpacking plants have been hit harder by COVID-19 than almost any other industry. Tens of thousands of meatpacking workers have become infected in major outbreaks at hundreds of plants across the country. These outbreaks have spread among workers’ families, neighborhoods, and towns, causing severe health risks for entire communities.
Despite legislative advocacy and numerous complaints, local, state, and federal officials have refused to enforce laws requiring safe working conditions in Nebraska’s meatpacking plants, where essential workers are predominantly Latinx and Black. To date, there has been no enforcement action against any Nebraska meatpacking plant.
The lawsuit notes Noah’s Ark‘s persistent refusal to take obvious public health precautions — physical distancing, adequate sick leave, testing, and clean masks — to protect its workers and the surrounding community from a new surge of COVID-19 cases. That risk is growing even greater as winter approaches.
Plaintiff Alma (a pseudonym to protect her from retribution) said workers have been terrified that they are going to get COVID-19, but Noah's Ark management has “made it seem like it was no big deal" and said that fears about the pandemic were simply “nonsense.”
She adds, “Even when things got more serious, they didn’t care. People were sick, but they still had to keep working. ... We were all worried, because everyone has kids, but not working wasn’t an option. If you stopped working, you would lose your job.”
The plaintiffs say the plant is a public nuisance because the transmission of COVID-19 within and outside the plant would cause widespread disease, hospitalizations, and death, not only among Noah’s Ark workers, but also their family members and members of the public with whom they interact. An outbreak originating at Noah’s Ark could also lead to the closing of businesses, schools, and places of worship.
Through the litigation, the plaintiffs hope to protect essential workers and their communities by establishing a clear baseline of COVID-19 protections that plants must provide.
Noah’s Ark’s negligence includes:
- The plant does not promptly replace workers’ masks when they become soiled with blood, fat, and sweat, forcing workers to leave part or all of their face uncovered.
- The plant has made no effort to physically distance workers from one another while they are in the plant. Every day, they stand shoulder to shoulder for hours at a time on the processing lines, and they sit crowded together in a small windowless cafeteria where they cannot wear masks while eating.
- The plant does not offer adequate sick leave to ensure that sick workers can stay home. It has pressured sick people to work, allowed others to keep working despite symptoms, and refused to pay many who have stayed home because of symptoms. It has not announced sick-leave policies to its workers.
- On top of everything else, Noah’s Ark is not providing any onsite testing, so when there is a surge in cases, the plant and its workers will have no idea until it is too late.
“Noah’s Ark has shown a shocking indifference to its employees and the community by failing to take common-sense steps to protect them from the spread of COVID-19,” said Spencer Amdur, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Every plant should be providing these basic protections. Without them, workers and others in the community face imminent and severe harm.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the plant implement four basic practices: physical distancing, clean masks, sick leave, and testing.
“This case is about racial justice and workers’ rights, health, and safety,” said Rose Godinez, an attorney at the ACLU of Nebraska. “As the daughter of retired meatpacking plant workers, I am heartbroken to see workers, their families, and our communities put in danger because of meatpacking plants’ refusal to protect essential workers from COVID-19. State and federal officials have also failed to protect these workers, so now we must turn to the courts to ensure the safe work environment that’s required by law.”
The case, Alma v. Noah’s Ark Processors, was filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Read more about the plaintiffs’ experiences here: https://www.aclu.org/news/immigrants-rights/bloody-masks-and-fevers-on-shift-immigrant-workers-face-abuse-in-nebraska-meatpacking-plant
Jon L. Gelman of Wayne NJ is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters). For over 4 decades the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman 1.973.696.7900 firstname.lastname@example.org has been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.
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