LINCOLN, Neb. (CN) — Three workers of the Noah’s Ark Processors meatpacking plant sued the company, accusing it of refusing to take even basic steps to protect workers from the spread of Covid-19 among their ranks.
In addition to forcing packers to work in tight quarters, withholding sick leave and failing to replace masks that become soaked with blood, fat and sweat, the plaintiffs say workers at the Hastings, Nebraska, plant who become infected spread the virus to their family members and others in their community.
One of the workers, who sued under the pseudonym Alma to protect herself from retribution, said that Noah’s Ark make it sound like the rising tidal wave of infections “wasn’t a big deal.”
“Even when things got more serious, they didn’t care. People were sick, but they still had to keep working,” Alma said in an ACLU press release. “We were all worried, because everyone has kids, but not working wasn’t an option. If you stopped working, you would lose your job.”
Her husband and co-plaintiff, using the pseudonym Antonio, told of a similar experience.
“I told my supervisor that my eyes were hurting and that I had symptoms that were getting worse, and he basically told me to eff off and go back to work,” Antonio said.
He finished his shift that night at the beef processing plant, then both he and his wife tested positive after being tested at a local clinic.
According to the lawsuit, the county where the plant is located has suffered Covid-19 infection rates over the summer that are between twice to 36 times as high as neighboring counties that do not have a meatpacking plant.
“Noah’s Ark has refused to take the most critical and basic steps to protect its workers from another large Covid-19 outbreak. Its refusal to provide adequate distancing, masks, sick leave, and testing creates an unacceptable risk to its employees, their families and the rest of the local community,” the plaintiffs say in their complaint. “These failures constitute a public nuisance and breach the plant’s duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace.”
Joining the three workers as plaintiffs is Dr. Daniel J. Leonard, who has a pediatrics practice in the Tri-Cities area that includes Hastings. He treats the children of meatpacking workers and people who are infected with Covid-19.
The plaintiffs say there will be severe consequences for hospitals in the area if the current spike in cases continues on the same path as the previous wave from May.
“The hospital where [Dr. Leonard] works faced a shortage of personal protective equipment and ventilators. Another surge of cases in the region could flood his practice and others with Covid-19 patients,” they say in their complaint.
According to the complaint, Noah’s Ark refuses to make an effort to physically distance workers who are forced to stand “shoulder to shoulder” on processing lines; does not replace masks that become soiled with blood, fat and sweat, which forces workers to work with uncovered faces in order to breathe; does not offer adequate sick leave and pressures employees to work even when they show symptoms; and lacks on-site coronavirus testing.
The plaintiffs want a judge to order the plant to implement physical distancing and protocols to ensure clean masks, provide adequate sick leave and implement on-site testing. Their claims include public nuisance, breach of duty and violations of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
A recent report from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the largest meatpacking union in the U.S., found there have been 128 deaths and over 19,800 infections among its members this year. The workers in Hastings are not represented by the union and would not be included in that count.
This past spring, the spread of Covid infections in meatpacking plants and communities was a big issue in many states, Nebraska included. The industry, notorious for its lack of workers’ rights and safety protections, was caught flatfooted. However, by the end of spring, many plants in Omaha and other communities implemented the precautions that Noah’s Ark workers demand.
At that time, Denise Kracl, a county attorney in a different part of the state, noted that all communities connected to the meatpacking industry were at risk in the time of Covid.
“Part of the problem is that people live together but work for different companies. We’re a very transient community,” Kracl told Courthouse News in June.
Spencer Amdur, an attorney with ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project agreed with this risk assessment.
“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,” Amdur said in a statement. “Every plant should be providing these basic protections. Without them, workers and others in the community face imminent and severe harm.”
The workers are represented by attorneys from the ACLU Foundation and ACLU of Nebraska, along with Maren Chaloupka of the Scottsbluff firm Chaloupka Holyoke.
Noah’s Ark Processors LLC is based in Dawson, Minnesota, and operates the Hastings beef plant.