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Employee files lawsuit against Central Valley Meat Co.
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Employee files lawsuit against Central Valley Meat Co.

HANFORD — An employee at Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford filed a class action lawsuit against the company, alleging it forced sick employees to work and did not disclose COVID-19 outbreaks.

Maria Ornelas filed the lawsuit on July 22 with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California.

According to the lawsuit, Central Valley Meat Co. not only failed to prepare for COVID-19, but hid the first cases of an outbreak in early April.

“Central Valley Meat deliberately chose, and continues to choose, profits over the health and safety of its employees and community,” states the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Ornelas was exposed to a coworker who tested positive for the virus in April. When she began displaying symptoms, she said she was denied a test and told by a supervisor to keep working.

The lawsuit said the company pressured sick employees to report to work. Within weeks, the lawsuit claims Ornelas — who tested positive on Aug. 28 — and close to 200 other employees contracted the disease.

“Despite this knowledge, Central Valley Meat encouraged, and — even affirmatively instructed — employees with COVID-19 symptoms to come to work; and it failed to timely warn co-workers or institute adequate precautionary measures,” the lawsuit states.

“Indeed, it is believed Central Valley Meat allowed multiple employees to return to work the day after they tested positive for COVID-19,” the lawsuit continued, alleging the company allowed at least one employee to work five days after testing positive and multiple other employees to work varying numbers of days after testing positive.

In addition, the lawsuit claims that while Ornelas was on unpaid leave, she was denied incentive pay and bonuses the company was offering to employees who worked during the pandemic. It said she also received disciplinary points under the company’s no-fault attendance policy for being absent, even though she had tested positive for the virus.

Management, it said, “…coerced, threatened, and pressured Ms. Ornelas from utilizing protected leave, with threats that the company would not keep her job open if she took time off work.”

Meat processors, which are considered essential businesses, have been hit with outbreaks of COVID-19 across the nation.

The outbreak at the facility was acknowledged by Kings County Department of Public Health officials during a Kings County Board of Supervisors meeting in late April.

At the time, Mike Casey, a spokesman for Central Valley Meat, said the company followed Centers for Disease Control guidelines and implemented other safety processes and procedures to keep employees safe.

A request for comment from the company was not returned by deadline Thursday.

Central Valley Meat Co. employs about 750 workers at its Hanford location and is estimated to process over 1,500 heads of cattle a day.

The reporter can be reached at julissazavala@hanfordsentinel.com

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