In summary

The company “disregarded inescapable evidence of rising infection levels among its workers,” the lawsuit says.

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Maria Pilar Ornelas felt she was suffocating when she asked her supervisor at Central Valley Meat Company in April to go home and test for the coronavirus, according to the lawsuit she filed last week.

She had a headache, blurry vision and difficulty breathing, but her supervisor denied Ornelas a test and told her to keep working, despite having been exposed to a person who tested positive for the virus, according to the lawsuit.

By the time she got home after her shift, Ornelas was coughing, struggling to breathe, and developed a high fever, the lawsuit says. Her fever persisted the next day, she said, but unable to contact human resources, her supervisor told her to come into work anyway. She did not, according to the lawsuit, and the company punished her for it.

“They’ve treated them so poorly. It’s a complete disregard for human life.”

Alreen Haeggquist, Ornelas’ attorney

Ornelas tested positive for COVID-19 days later and infected her boyfriend, who ended up at the hospital, according to the lawsuit.

Mike Casey, a company spokesperson, declined to comment on the case. He said the company only learned of the action through the media and had yet to be properly served as of Monday.

Ornelas filed the class action complaint with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California on July 22. A judge still has to approve the lawsuit’s group status, but Alreen Haeggquist, the attorney overseeing the case, hopes to represent all Central Valley Meat Company workers.

On May 13, The Fresno Bee reported the plant had 183 cases of COVID-19. Casey declined to disclose the latest number of infections, and the Kings County Health Department did not respond with the latest case count.

“The employer needs consequences,” Haeggquist said. “They’ve treated them so poorly. It’s a complete disregard for human life.”

Hanford company ‘disregarded’ COVID-19 outbreak

According to the lawsuit, Central Valley Meat Company is the seventh-largest beef packer and processing company in the United States. The company employs more than 900 people, 750 of whom work in the Hanford Plant and processes over 1,500 cattle a day.

Meat processors have seen large outbreaks in their factories because they are considered essential, and people often work in close proximity. According to the CDC, more than 16,000 meatpacking plant employees were infected with COVID-19 nationwide as of May, and at least 86 workers have died.

The lawsuit alleges the company could have prevented the outbreak in Hanford.

The company “disregarded substantial, inescapable evidence of rising infection levels among its workers and implemented policies and practices, in plain violation of health and safety regulations and public health guidance, that facilitated rather than diminished the spread of COVID-19,” the lawsuit says.

In light of the pandemic, employees were given $200 extra per pay period for perfect attendance, according to the lawsuit. If an employee came down with COVID-19, like Ornelas, and missed work, they lost the extra money.

“That’s encouraging you to come into work when you’re sick. You’re having to choose between having to feed yourself and get yourself sick,” Haeggquist said.

The company also maintained its points system, whereby a worker received a point against them if they missed work, even if they tested positive for COVID-19, according to the lawsuit. With 18 points, they lost their job, according to the lawsuit.

Central Valley Meat Company learned of their first coronavirus case on April 2 and refused to let workers know until April 22, when they had nine employees with confirmed COVID-19 cases, the lawsuit says. At least one employee worked up to five additional days after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit also alleges the company violated its workers’ privacy by sending Ornelas an excel spreadsheet listing the name of every worker who tested positive for the virus.

This is not the first lawsuit against a major meatpacker in the San Joaquin Valley. Two Black workers filed separate, unrelated lawsuits this year against Harris Ranch Beef Company in Selma, alleging racial discrimination.

And workers told The Bee there was an outbreak of COVID-19 at Harris Ranch in Selma, but the company and the county refused to provide a case count.

Harris Ranch Beef Company and Central Valley Meat Company are both owned by Brian Coehlo but operate independently.

Manuela Tobias is a reporter with The Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

CalMatters COVID-19 coverage, translation and distribution is supported by generous grants from the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation and the California Health Care Foundation.

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Manuela is a reporter at The Fresno Bee covering income inequality and economic survival for the California Divide. She is a former staff writer for PolitiFact, where she covered politics, health care...