Judges: Sioux City meatpacking plant failed to protect its workers

By: - November 23, 2020 3:48 pm
nterior of an empty courtroom with gavel and sounding block on the desk.

The state of Iowa has agreed to pay $125,000 to settle a long-running lawsuit over the 2016 suicide of an inmate housed in the  Waterloo Residential Correctional Facility. (Photo by Getty Images)

In two separate cases, Iowa judges have ruled that a Sioux City meatpacking plant must pay unemployment benefits to workers who quit, citing the company’s failure to protect its employees from COVID-19.

The two cases involve Seaboard Triumph Foods, a company that employs more than 2,400 people at its Sioux City facility, and former employees Yoslady Rodriguez and Maria Montes. According to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker, the plant has recorded 176 coronavirus infections.

Rodriguez was employed full-time as a meatpacker until July 7 when she quit. Before resigning, she had been granted a leave of absence due to pre-existing health conditions that put her at high risk if she contracted COVID-19. She had allegedly been told she would receive her pay while on leave, but was not compensated. Due to the resulting financial hardship, she returned to the plant where she worked side-by-side with employees who worked approximately 3 feet apart.

Administrative Law Judge Jennifer Beckman recently found that although employees in the plant had masks and a face shield attached to their helmets, the usage of those devices was not enforced by the company. Workers also were alleged to have shared common spaces, such as  lunchrooms and restrooms, that were not kept clean. Breaks and meals were not staggered to space people out, Beckman found, and many employees were absent due to having contracted COVID-19.

By the time Rodriguez quit, Seaboard Triumph had publicly acknowledged more than 120 of its workers had been infected with COVID-19. Rodriguez quit after learning that a colleague she worked near had died of COVID-19. The company allegedly did not address workers’ concerns or tell employees of the death. Employees of the plant had reportedly discussed their concerns about COVID-19 with plant management and human resources officials, but no changes in the work environment were imposed, Beckman found.

Company officials challenged Rodriguez’s efforts to collected unemployment, but provided no testimony or evidence at a formal hearing on that issue. On Nov. 18, Beckman awarded Rodriguez unemployment benefits.

“A reasonable person would have believed that (Rodriguez’s) working conditions were unsafe, intolerable and detrimental,” Beckman ruled, “due to the lack of safety procedures provided to employees to perform the job, and the employer’s guidelines that failed to properly protect her from infection.”

In a separate case, Administrative Law Judge Laura Jontz awarded benefits to Maria Montes, who was a full-time janitorial employee at Seaboard Triumph before quitting in May.

Montes, 59, has asthma and diabetes, pre-existing conditions that make her more susceptible to becoming seriously ill if she contracts COVID-19. Seaboard Triumph gave her masks to wear during her shifts, but she was not able to maintain a safe distance from other people at work.

Judge Jontz ruled that Montes “left due to unsafe working conditions” and was entitled to unemployment benefits. “I find the working conditions were unsafe,” she ruled “I also find there was a substantial change in her contract of hire that affected her health and safety.”

Seaboard Triumph chose not to present any evidence or testimony in either of the two cases. Company officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

Among the other recent unemployment cases in Iowa tied to COVID-19:

  • Jessi Curl, the former general manager for Bills Brothers Freight Salvage, was denied unemployment benefits after quitting his job. According to the ruling, Curl was frustrated with short staffing at the company and in May he approached the owner and the office manager and allegedly said, “F— you … I’m not wearing your f—ing masks … I’m outta this f—ing place. I’m going somewhere I can work with real men.”
  • Roxanne Davis, who worked at the Winterset Casey’s General Store as a full-time cashier, was denied benefits. She had gone on leave in April due to concerns about the pandemic. Davis was 64 years old and suffers from hypertension and was concerned about risks posed by COVID-19. At the time, the employer did not require workers to wear masks. Noting that Casey’s “still does not require customers to wear a mask,” Administrative Law Judge James Timberland ruled last week that Davis was “on a leave of absence that she requested” and thus “had not been able to work.” She was denied regular state unemployment benefits.
  • Matthew Eisenmann was denied benefits after losing his job at Two Rivers Bank and Trust where he worked as a branch manager. He was fired in June. Company policy required employees to have their temperature taken and answer questions about their health before they could enter the building each day. On June 17, during a routine review of the closed-circuit video captured at Eisenmann’s branch, company officials saw that employees tasked with taking the temperatures of co-workers were not wearing masks or gloves as instructed. When asked about that, Eisenmann allegedly said he and his branch employees felt the company was going overboard with protective measures; said wearing a mask could actually pose a health hazard; and admitted he was not taking mitigation policies seriously.
  • Alexis Lee was denied benefits after quitting her job at CTCC Rentals, which runs the Grand Junction Bar & Grill in West Des Moines. The judge in the case found that in May, the restaurant posted on social media that it would be taking the temperature of staff members at the door and imposing other measures to protect customers. After the reopening, however, several employees allegedly objected to having their temperature taken and the employer decided to only take the temperatures of employees who reported feeling ill. When Lee reported for work, she allegedly found that no one took her temperature and her co-workers were not wearing gloves or masks and were not social distancing. Citing an underlying health condition that puts her immune system at risk, she quit. She was denied unemployment benefits, with the judge noting that the restaurant “should have done a better job of requiring servers to socially distance, but (Lee) did not give employer an opportunity to correct this issue by bringing it to a manager’s attention.”
  • Jacey Grant was awarded benefits after quitting her job last spring with T.M. Sisson, who employed her as an administrative assistant. After visiting her ailing father in Illinois, Grant received a text message from Sisson, asking, “No exposure to Chinese Viruse [sic], right? Things are about to get real.” Grant responded: “Doing well … possible exposure but tons of washing and sanitizer.” During a subsequent phone conversation, recorded by Grant, Sisson was angry and allegedly cursed at her more than once. She told him she wouldn’t continue the conversation unless he was civil. When she received no such assurance, she chose not to return to work.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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