A group of former meatpacking workers, some of whom tested positive for coronavirus, and their families stood outside Quality Sausage Co. in Dallas on Tuesday night asking for someone to intervene and shut down the plant before more workers die.
“I don’t understand why we have to come here and protest with masks and bring workers literally out of quarantine for them to listen,” Blanca Parra said in Spanish while holding a Veladora candle in honor of her husband, Hugo Dominguez, a forklift operator at the plant who died of COVID-19 on April 25.
“The virus was the gun that killed him but Quality Sausage was the hand that pulled the trigger,” Parra said. “We are asking for justice because the company and the people who made the decision to continue working and putting people at risk need them to be held accountable.”
Parra filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company on May 6, claiming Dominguez was told to report to work or face being fired even after his symptoms became evident.
A second wrongful death lawsuit could be filed as soon as Wednesday morning against Quality Sausage Co., according to Carlos Quintanilla, who organized the protest and who works with the law firm representing Dominguez and the family of Mathias Martinez, who died on April 24.
Martinez had worked at the plant for 14 years before testing positive for COVID-19, according to Martinez’s wife, who lives in Mexico and asked not be identified. She said the cause of death remained pending as of Tuesday night.
Quintanilla said Quality Sausage refused to take the pandemic seriously and took no safety precautions even as workers became sick.
Quality Sausage did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
The plant closed on April 24, the day Martinez died, and reopened with limited production on May 8, according to a statement from Quality Sausage.
A thorough review of its operations and guidance regarding COVID-19 was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Organization before it reopened, the company said.
“We continue to work cooperatively with county health officials regarding the COVID-19 crisis and our response to it,” the statement said. “The health and well-being of our team members is extremely important to us. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, we have continually monitored and adapted our procedures to reflect guidance from the CDC and OSHA, which has changed as they’ve learned more about the virus.”
Bertha Cervantes, another worker at Quality Sausage, died a few days after the plant reopened, according to Quintanilla.
“People keep dying and no one is doing anything,” Quintanilla said. “These people are being forced to go back to work even if they are sick and tested positive for the virus.”
Quintanilla said his count of 63 positive cases and three deaths is based on official documents and interviews with workers and their families.
Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to multiple requests for information about deaths and cases associated with the plant.
Test causes fears
As part of the gradual restart, Quality Sausage hired a medical doctor who designed a testing system for workers, according to the company statement.
But some workers told the Star Telegram they are afraid to sign the release forms because they think the company is using the tests to relinquish any liability for the company’s actions or inaction dealing with COVID-19 cases inside the plant.
A copy of the form obtained by the Star-Telegram reads: “I expressly waive and release all potential and actual legal claims and causes of action against the three companies and their owners, investors, insurers, employees, contractors, and agents in any way related to the swabs, tests, and test results, including how the test results are used by QSC.”
Quality Sausage declined a request asking to confirm the validity of the form and a separate request for information regarding what type of tests it is conducting, its contact tracing procedures, its data on confirmed cases and its count of COVID-19-related workers’ deaths.
At least 20 meat and poultry workers have died and 4,913 employees in 115 plants have tested positive in 19 states, according to the latest CDC numbers.
President Trump issued an executive order on April 28, invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open during the coronavirus pandemic. But the order failed to include strict safety standards for workers, which puts the employer before the employee, said Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat from Brownsville who sits on the House Committee on Agriculture and the Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture.
“He’s using it to put workers in a situation that is very dangerous,” said Vela, who worked at a meat plant during college.
On March 31, LULAC, the nation’s largest and oldest Hispanic civil rights organization, sent a letter to OSHA expressing its concerns about the safety of essential food industry workers, such as meatpackers. It asked OSHA to provide clear and uniform guidelines — including appropriate safety equipment, paid sick days and regular health checks — for the companies under the agency’s purview.
As of Monday, that letter has still not been addressed.