Lawsuit: Swift Pork endangered workers with free steak lunch during pandemic

By: - May 16, 2022 5:22 pm

A lawsuit alleges an Iowa meatpacking plant "deliberately" failed to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Stock photo by USGAO/Wikipedia)

The family of an Iowa meatpacking plant worker who died from COVID-19 is suing the company for allegedly failing to protect employees who were “crammed” into a dining hall for a free steak lunch in appreciation of their attendance during the pandemic.

Jose Andrade-Garcia, the lawsuit alleges, was a 21-year employee of the company and was victim of its “deliberate decisions to value their own corporate profits above his health, safety, and ultimately, his life… While Jose Andrade-Garcia and his coworkers slaughtered and processed animals for defendants’ corporate profits, they themselves were being led to the slaughter by the defendants’ recklessness and greed.”

The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court, names 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 employed as a security guard at the Marshalltown plant when the COVID-19 pandemic first reached the United States in January 2020. According to the lawsuit, company officials had “several months to prepare the Marshalltown plant for the protection of their employees from the deadly virus,” but deliberately failed to do so.

The lawsuit alleges that every day throughout March and April of 2020, hundreds of workers were absent from their jobs at the Marshalltown plant due to concerns with the virus. At that time, the company was not testing Marshalltown plant workers for COVID-19, nor was it releasing any information as to the number of infected workers on staff.

At the same time, the plant was still using a “point system” to track attendance, the lawsuit claims, with workers given points for missing work. The employees were subject to termination based on the accumulation of seven or more points.

Although employees who tested positive for COVID-19 could miss work without accruing points, the company allegedly required employees to work while waiting for their test results.

Workers ‘crammed’ into dining hall for free steak 

The company also is accused of failing to require that workers experiencing COVID-19 symptoms report their symptoms or potential illness to the company, and is accused of failing to require that workers experiencing COVID-19 symptoms stay home from work or get tested.

The company “even began to incentivize these sick employees to continue showing up to work during the pandemic,” the lawsuit claims.

On March 25, 2020, the company announced a $600 bonus to those workers who “complied with” the plant’s attendance policy, with the understanding that the bonus would not be paid until May 15 — nearly two months later.

In late March 25, the company staged a series of free New York strip steak lunches as a thank-you to workers for continuing to work during the pandemic. On the plant’s Facebook page, the company allegedly stated, “All of the amazing JBS employees serving the world during these trying times were served NY Strips and sides. Thanks for a job well done.”

To take advantage of the lunch, the lawsuit claims, hundreds of workers had to be “crammed” inside the Marshalltown plant cafeteria – despite the Iowa governor’s order, in effect at that time — that public gatherings be limited to no more than 10 people.

The company “failed to implement even basic safety precautions” during the lunch, such as requiring social distancing or providing protective equipment such as masks or barriers.

“Shoulder to shoulder and entirely unprotected from the deadly pandemic, workers ate a free meal as ‘thanks’ for their service during the pandemic,” the lawsuit states. “These conditions were memorialized with photos on the defendants’ Facebook page.”

Trump’s actions lead to federal court filing

In April 2020, the lawsuit claims, JBS USA temporarily suspended operations at plants in Minnesota and Colorado due to dozens of confirmed COVID-19 cases, but the Marshalltown plant remained open.

When the Colorado plant was reopened, JBS USA allegedly offered COVID-19 testing to all of the workers there with symptoms, but refused to offer such testing for symptomatic workers in Marshalltown.

In mid-April 2020, Andrade-Garcia began feeling sick but allegedly continued to work for fear of being fired. His family called 911 on April 17 when his breathing worsened, and he was gasping for air. At a hospital, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and he died on May 15, 2020.

His family’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for gross negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation. JBS USA has yet to filed a response to the allegations.

Although 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 plants to remain open are an unavoidable issue in the case.

“One essential question is embedded in each of plaintiffs’ claims,” the family’s lawyer states in a filing with the court. “In the midst of a presidentially declared national emergency, how must America’s meat processing facilities balance the interests of safeguarding workplace health and safety with their ongoing obligation to feed the American people?”

The plaintiffs state that any duties that might be ascribed to the defendants with regard to remaining open “unavoidably implicates the president’s explicit directive regarding the safe operation of meat processing facilities during the pandemic, as well as federal policies governing the nation’s food supply, national security, and the economy.”

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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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