The family of an Iowa meatpacker worker who died of COVID-19 is suing the company for allegedly failing to protect employees who were “squeezed” into a cafeteria for a free steak lunch in thanks for their participation during the pandemic.
José Andrade-Garcia, the lawsuit alleges, had been an employee of the company for 21 years and was a victim of his “deliberate decisions to value his own corporate profits above his health, safety, and ultimately his life… animals for the defendants’ corporate profits, they were themselves being driven to slaughter by the defendants’ recklessness and greed”.
The lawsuit, filed last week in US District Court, cites as defendants JBS USA and its subsidiaries, JBS Live Pork and Swift Pork, which operate the pork processing plant in Marshalltown.
The lawsuit alleges that Andrade-Garcia was hired as a security guard at the Marshalltown plant when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the United States in January 2020. According to the lawsuit, company employees had “several months to prepare the Marshalltown plant for the protection of its employees against the deadly virus,” but deliberately did not.
The suit alleges that every day throughout March and April 2020, hundreds of workers were absent from their jobs at the Marshalltown plant due to concerns about the virus. At that time, the company was not testing workers at the Marshalltown plant for COVID-19, nor was it releasing any information about the number of infected workers on staff.
At the same time, the factory was still using a “point system” to track attendance, the lawsuit alleges, with workers receiving points for lack of work. Employees were subject to termination based on the accumulation of seven or more points.
While employees who tested positive for COVID-19 could take time off work without accumulating points, the company reportedly required employees to work while they waited for test results.
Workers ‘squeezed’ in cafeteria for free steak
The company is also accused of not requiring workers with symptoms of COVID-19 to report their symptoms or possible illness to the company and is accused of not requiring workers with symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home from work or be tested.
The company “even began encouraging these sick employees to continue showing up for work during the pandemic,” the lawsuit states.
On March 25, 2020, the company announced a $600 bonus for workers who “complied” with the factory’s fulfillment policy, with the understanding that the bonus would not be paid until May 15 – nearly two months later.
At the end of March 25, the company hosted a series of free strip steak lunches in New York as a thank you to workers for continuing to work during the pandemic. On the factory’s Facebook page, the company reportedly stated: “All the amazing JBS employees who served the world during these difficult times were served NY Strips and Sides. Thank you for a job well done.”
In order to enjoy lunch, the suit alleges, hundreds of workers had to be “squeezed” into the Marshalltown factory’s cafeteria – despite the Iowa governor’s then-current order that public gatherings be limited to no more than 10 people.
The company “failed to implement even basic safety precautions” during lunch, such as requiring social distancing or providing protective gear such as masks or barriers.
“Shoulder to shoulder and totally unprotected from the deadly pandemic, workers ate a free meal as a ‘thank you’ for their service during the pandemic,” the lawsuit states. “These conditions were commemorated with photos on the defendants’ Facebook page.”
Trump’s Actions Lead to Federal Lawsuit
In April 2020, the lawsuit alleges, JBS USA temporarily suspended operations at the Minnesota and Colorado plants due to dozens of confirmed COVID-19 cases, but the Marshalltown plant remained open.
When the Colorado plant reopened, JBS USA reportedly offered COVID-19 tests to all workers with symptoms, but declined to offer such tests to symptomatic workers in Marshalltown.
In mid-April 2020, Andrade-Garcia began to feel unwell, but reportedly continued working for fear of being fired. His family called 911 on April 17, when his breathing worsened and he was short of breath. In a hospital, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and died on May 15, 2020.
His family’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for gross negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation. JBS USA has yet to respond to the allegations.
While the lawsuit against JBS was initially filed in state court last month, it was filed in federal court this month, with the plaintiffs’ attorney noting that the actions of the federal government and then-President Trump in directing the factories to remain open are an unavoidable issue in the case.
“An essential issue is embedded in each of the plaintiffs’ claims,” the family’s lawyer states in a court document. “In the midst of a presidentially declared national emergency, how should US meat processing facilities balance the interests of safeguarding health and safety in the workplace with their ongoing obligation to feed the American people?”
The plaintiffs claim that any duties that may be assigned to the defendants regarding staying open “inevitably imply the president’s explicit directive on the safe operation of meat processing facilities during the pandemic, as well as federal policies governing the food supply.” of the country, national security, and the economy”.