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Some California Food Workers Choose between COVID-19 exposure or lost wages—will worker safety lawsuits follow?

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Despite an executive ordering that food workers can receive two weeks of paid sick leave if they may have been exposed to the coronavirus, at least one company says the law doesn’t apply to them.

Sacramento, CAFood sector workers are mostly front-line workers. From farmers to food processors to grocery store clerks, they continue to work to ensure the state’s 40 million residents have enough food during this crisis. And they continue to work even when co-workers have tested positive for COVID-19. If not, they could get fired, despite a new California labor order that provides sick leave for full-time workers exposed to the virus. Are worker safety lawsuits on the horizon?

Health officials on May 7 said that more than 100 employees tested positive for the coronavirus at two food-processing plants in Tulare County, reported Mercury News. And the Visalia Times Delta reported that the Ruiz Foods facility at the Tulare food processing plant continues business as usual: the frozen Mexican food company, known for its El Monterey brand, is preparing and packaging burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas and other Mexican food items.

A new executive order requires companies in the food sector with 500 or more workers to provide sick leave benefits for full-time workers who contract COVID-19 or are exposed to the virus and need to isolate themselves. “We don’t want you going to work if you’re sick, and we want to make sure that you know that if you’re sick, it’s OK to acknowledge it,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom, who also issued standards for enhancing the protections of grocery store employees.

Shame on Amazon

This new order includes “workers at warehouses where food is stored, and workers who pick-up or deliver any food items”. Many workers at Amazon’s warehouses handle food. And COVID-19 cases have been confirmed at six of its warehouses in Southern California. (An Amazon employee in New York died from the coronavirus and workers staged a walkout protesting lack of protection. The employee responsible for the walkout was later fired by the company.)

According to The Guardian and Business Insider, Amazon workers in the Inland Empire area, east of Los Angeles said they have to choose between potential coronavirus exposure and lost wages. "I'm afraid to come to work, but I don't have a choice," said Eddie, a 48-year-old worker in San Bernardino. "I shouldn't be there. We're risking our safety for the company … The more I think about it, the more stressed I get."

Workers criticizing Amazon have been fired and other employees, including former vice president and engineer Tim Bray — have quit. Staying at Amazon "would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised," Bray wrote in an April 29 blog post. "I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19," he added, calling the company "chickens---" for firing critical workers.

Worker Safety Lawsuit

After a meat processing plant worker in Dallas died of COVID-19, his wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Quality Sausage Co, claiming its negligence led to a coronavirus outbreak inside the facility that killed Hugo Dominguez and sickened others. Dallas News reported that Blanca Esther Parra said in her complaint against his employer that Dominguez was “the victim of a workplace which gave more importance to profits than human life.” The lawsuit claims Quality Sausage refused to take the pandemic seriously and took no safety precautions, even as workers became sick. 

Is an Amazon lawsuit next?


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