AP Photo/David Zalubowski. Jimena Peterson waves a placard during a protest outside the offices of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Sept. 16, 2020, in downtown Denver. The protest was staged by the union representing employees at a Colorado meatpacking plant where six workers died of COVID-19 and hundreds more were infected this past spring.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski.

“Not working wasn’t an option. If you stopped working, you would lose your job.”

On Nov. 23, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with other law firms, filed a lawsuit against a meatpacking plant in Nebraska claiming COVID-19 negligence, saying they are risking the lives of their immigrant employees. Furthermore, the ACLU says the plant has become a public nuisance after an outbreak earlier this year caused infection in other members of the community. 

The lawsuit against Noah’s Ark Processors claims the plant, located in Hastings, does not promptly replace workers’ masks when they become soiled with blood, fat (from the processed meat) and sweat, forcing workers to leave part or all of their face uncovered.

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The ACLU also alleges the plant does not adhere to social distance rules, leaving the employees to stand shoulder to shoulder for hours on the processing lines. They also sit together in a small windowless cafeteria where they cannot wear masks while eating.

Noah’s Ark does not offer adequate sick leave to ensure that sick workers can stay home, according to the lawsuit, and pressures sick people to work, despite showing symptoms, and refused to pay many who have stayed home because of symptoms. The plant is also not providing any onsite testing. 

“Despite legislative advocacy and numerous complaints, local, state, and federal officials have refused to enforce laws requiring safe working conditions in Nebraska’s meatpacking plants, where essential workers are predominantly Latino and Black,” the ACLU said in a statement. 

Rose Godinez, an attorney at the ACLU of Nebraska, said in an interview with The Americano that more than 50% of the workers at Noah’s Ark are Latino. Godinez stated that they don’t have actual figures of how many people got sick at the plant because there’s no contract tracing. However, a local doctor (a plaintiff in the case) attested to being overwhelmed with cases that stemmed from the meat plant. 

“This case is about racial justice and workers’ rights, health, and safety,” Godinez said. “As the daughter of retired meatpacking plant workers, I am heartbroken to see workers, their families, and our communities put in danger because of meatpacking plants’ refusal to protect essential workers from COVID-19. State and federal officials have also failed to protect these workers, so now we must turn to the courts to ensure the safe work environment that’s required by law.”

According to the New York Times, Nebraska has reported an average of 2,271 cases per day, an increase of 29 percent from the average two weeks earlier. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reports that the state has 114,061 cases of COVID-19.

One of the plaintiffs, referred to as Alma in the lawsuit, said workers were terrified that they are going to get COVID-19, but that Noah’s Ark management “made it seem like it was no big deal.” Alma, an immigrant from Cuba, said she began working there a few years ago. 

She added, “Even when things got more serious, they didn’t care. People were sick, but they still had to keep working… We were all worried, because everyone has kids, but not working wasn’t an option. If you stopped working, you would lose your job.”

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This lawsuit comes just days after a similar lawsuit against the Tyson plant in Iowa that claimed employee negligence during the pandemic. The lawsuit claimed management was taking bets on who would get sick. The company has since fired those managers. 

Like that lawsuit in Iowa, the lawsuit against Noah’s Ark also claims that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) received complaints about working conditions during the pandemic and did not do anything about it.