Farm workers' union sues Foster Farms after COVID-19 outbreaks

In court documents, employees claim COVID testing among workers is inconsistent and that the facility fails to enforce social distancing.
LIVINGSTON, Calif. (KFSN) -- Foster Farms is now facing a lawsuit and possible restraining order after nearly 400 of their employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and at least eight have died.

Now the United Farm Workers Union has asked in a lawsuit for an immediate temporary restraining order in an attempt to force the chicken processing plant to follow state health regulations.

The Foster Farms meatpacking plant in Livingston remains on Merced County's 'active outbreak' list. Since the start of the pandemic, it has been the site of hundreds of COVID-19 cases and 8 deaths.

A bad outbreak led to the temporary shutdown of the plant in September.

"At this point, we are appealing to the courts as a last resort," said Elizabeth Strater from the UFW. "We aren't asking for the immediate permanent closure of the plant or anything like that, we are asking for them to become compliant with the law."

In court documents, employees claim there are areas in the plant where employees work closer than six feet apart without plastic dividers, that testing among workers is inconsistent and that the facility fails to enforce social distancing, among other complaints.

"These workers who are the most vulnerable to infection are also the most vulnerable when it comes to speaking out about what they are experiencing," said Strater.

In a statement earlier this month, the company said it "maintains an active set of mitigation measures designed to protect workers from COVID."

Foster Farms said it appointed a specialist in occupational health safety to oversee the company's COVID-19 programs and that the company has conducted over 10,000 COVID-19 tests since September at the Livingston Poultry Complex.

At least 400 of the plant's 3,700 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 to date.

"This is not only an issue for the people that are working at Foster Farms," said Strater. "It's an issue for their families and it's an issue for everyone in Merced County."

Merced County judge postponed making a ruling on the restraining order until December 23.

Foster Farms responded to the lawsuit with the following statement:

Foster Farms is committed to the health and welfare of its employees. We join the State of California and Merced County in responding to the resurgence of COVID-19 throughout the Central Valley. Our ongoing effort is reflected in a consistent prevalence level at the Livingston Poultry Complex of less than 1% since

September 2020, even as testing positivity in Merced County has increased to 13.5%, with no signs of abating. Foster Farms does not comment on active litigation in detail. We believe the current United Farm Workers lawsuit is without merit and have confidence that judicial review will find accordingly.

Foster Farms has followed a three step multi-hurdle approach to controlling COVID-19:

1) Screening to prevent symptomatic employees from entering facilities, utilizing wellness and temperature checks.

2) Implementation of mitigations following CDC guidance and additional review with county health department. Mitigations include mandatory wearing of face coverings, addition of partitions to workstations where social distancing opportunities are limited, daily USDA reviewed plant sanitation, and continuous sanitation of shared common spaces, staggering of worker breaks and expansion of break areas. Most recently the company has reviewed ventilation at its processing facilities and is installing HEPA portable filters in common shared areas.

3) Continuous weekly testing of employees at all major processing facilities, to remove asymptomatic workers - those showing no signs of illness - curtailing potential COVID-19 spread. Our testing is graduated based on ongoing review of change in county prevalence levels, and most recent test results, with the capability to rapidly expand from sample-based Surveillance testing to Aggressive twice weekly testing of the entire plant workforce. To date, Foster Farms has performed more than 50,000 tests since the beginning of the pandemic, including more than 25,000 tests at its Livingston Poultry Complex since September. We believe that identifying and removing asymptomatic workers through proactive testing is the surest way to further protect workers free of the virus. Currently all major Foster Farms processing plants are following an Aggressive twice weekly testing protocol for all employees. We believe this is one of the most comprehensive testing programs in California.

Foster Farms has worked closely with the Merced County Department of Public Health and is sharing its learnings, in the interest of controlling prevalence at other businesses and institutions, with public health departments in the Central Valley. Foster Farms has been advised by Dr. David Rollins, an occupational health physician, responsible for overseeing Foster Farms COVID-19 programs; Dr. David Acheson, an infectious disease physician who has served as the Chief Medical Officer to the USDA and FDA; and Dr. Ben Miller, a leading epidemiologist who has also served in advisory capacities with the FDA. COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to all who live and work in California. Tempering the recent statewide surge in COVID-19 will require the active cooperation of government, public health authorities, business and local citizens. Foster Farms is committed to this task and to the ongoing protection of its workforce.
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