Workers Contracted COVID-19 Due to Employer Failure to Take Adequate Protective Measures.
Three agricultural workers filed a lawsuit against Sunrise Acres Egg Farm for violations of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and Michigan common law based on Sunrise’s negligence. The three workers contracted COVID-19 despite their personal efforts to protect against the virus because of the failure of Sunrise Acres to implement policies to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and ensure social distancing among its workforce. The workers are represented by the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) and the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice.
Essential workers were in short supply at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the need for contract workers in the food supply chain increased, poultry companies like Sunrise Acres increased its contract work force in order to meet demand. However, despite increased warnings from both federal and state government regarding the need for companies to institute policies to protect their workforce by mandating social distancing and providing PPE, Sunrise Acres failed to do so in a timely manner. Complicating the issue further, Sunrise Acres failed to listen to the concerns of the workers, particularly when an employee of Sunrise was visibly ill yet still drove the contract workers to the work site.
In April 2020, Juana Beatrice Castaneda Sanchez complained to the supervisors at Sunrise Acres about her COVID-19 concerns and about the potentially sick employee. She also alerted her employer, C & C West Poultry, the farm labor contractor who provided contract workers to Sunrise Acres. Despite her objections, neither Sunrise Acres nor C &C West Poultry took any action to protect their workforce. Due to the lack of sufficient PPE for workers, the close quarters in the egg packing plants, and the presence of workers who were already displaying coronavirus symptoms, Ms. Castaneda Sanchez along with her husband, Juan Carlos Covarrubias, and fellow worker Margarita Rodriguez all contracted COVID-19. The three workers were ordered to isolate by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The three workers were unpaid for their time away from work, despite the earlier passage of the FFCRA which compelled employers to provide workers with eighty hours of paid sick leave.
Juana Beatrice Castaneda Sanchez bravely came forward to share her experience to ensure that contractors like Sunrise Acres protect the workers who enabled the company to continue to provide eggs to the public, especially after so many workers took heed of the stay-at-home orders issued by the Governor’s office at the beginning of the pandemic. “COVID-19 has affected me in a lot of ways, mentally, financially, economically,” Ms. Castaneda Sanchez said through an interpreter. “I was infected with COVID-19 because at work they did not provide us with security protections, did not give us masks. We had to buy masks with our own money. And many of us at work got sick due to the lack of protective equipment at our workplaces.”
“We applaud the courage of workers like Juana for speaking up about their concerns,” said Gonzalo Peralta, attorney at MIRC. “At the start of the pandemic, agricultural workers were deemed essential and yet Juana’s employer didn’t take the necessary steps to protect their workers. Juana and her co-workers deserve to work in an environment that ensures their health and safety. It is an unfortunate reality where employers have to be compelled to act and redress wrongs through litigation.”
“Sunrise Farm’s denial of the realities of this pandemic fell hardest on the people we depend on most – the hard-working people who continued to come to work and process the food that appears on grocery shelves across this state, and the country,” said John Philo, Executive and Legal Director for the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice. “In this case, the company failed to take the most basic protections to ensure that COVID 19 was not spread amongst workers and through this suit, we seek accountability on behalf of those persons who were harmed.”
Workers who have questions about their rights can call MIRC’s free confidential Farmworker and Immigrant Worker hotline at 800-968-4046.