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Racial discrimination lawsuit filed against JBS

T-R photo by Thomas Nelson Marshalltown JBS employees get ready to head home during a shift change Thursday afternoon. A recent lawsuit alleges JBS engaged in racial discrimination.

An organization named Forward Latino and other groups from across the country filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against JBS and Tyson alleging racial discrimination during the COVID-19 response.

The organizations filed an administrative civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging that the Tyson and JBS adopted policies that rejected critical Centers for Disease Control guidance, including social distancing on meat processing lines, to stop the spread of COVID-19 at their processing facilities, according to a news release from Forward Latino.

The lawsuit was filed by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Rural Community Workers Alliance, the HEAL Food Alliance, Forward Latino, American Friends Service Committee — Iowa, and the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils. They are represented by Public Justice, Nichols Kaster PLLP, and Towards Justice.

The lawsuit is seeking the termination of financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Tyson and JBS and for the U.S. Department of Justice to enforce compliance.

“Food Chain Workers further request that, during any efforts to secure voluntary compliance, the Office of Civil Rights includes Food Chain Workers in any negotiations and communications with the corporations,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit comes after the Centers For Disease Control released information showing a large racial disparity in people who have caught COVID-19.

Latino people are four times more likely to have COVID-19 than Caucasians.

The CDC Disparity Report found that after receiving race and ethnicity data from 21 states.

The report states Latino and Asian workers might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in workplace settings. However, it does not identify instances of facilities reporting adoption of the minimum 6-foot social distancing measure to protect workers on processing lines.

The lawsuit alleges JBS and Tyson’s policies violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects individuals from racial discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance.

Cameron Bruett, JBS Head of Corporate Affairs, responded to the lawsuit.

“The numerous nationalities, races and cultures in our workforce are the true strength of our company. We are a culture of many, including refugee, immigrant, native-born and asylee. We are humbled to provide well-paying jobs to many first generation Americans seeking to build a better future for themselves and their families,” Bruett said in an email to the T-R. “During this pandemic, we have maintained our operations and the jobs they create only when we believe our facilities to be safe. We have embraced our responsibility to provide a safe working environment and will continue to do so. Our efforts have followed, and often exceeded, CDC guidance. We welcome any review of our practices and response to the pandemic, along with the many opportunities we provide our team members from every background imaginable.”

JBS and Tyson have received federal contracts during and before 2020.

The lawsuits states, that the respondents’ meat processing corporations that have received more than $150 million dollars in federal contracts during 2020 – are engaged in racial discrimination.

“Meat processing workers, the majority of whom are Black, Latino and Asian bear an adverse disparate impact from exposure to COVID-19 caused by respondents’ corporate processing policies that favor a processing capacity objective — the bottom line — over common-sense measures to protect workers’ health and safety,” according to the lawsuit. “Black and Latino people are more likely to experience financial stress than white people. The financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affect Black and Latino workers, who ‘at greater risk of unemployment and [less able] to weather economic downturns’ due to several long standing inequities, including ‘occupational segregation, economic exploitation, and employment discrimination.'”

JBS and other meat packing companies have faced criticism during the pandemic over their working conditions. Throughout Iowa, counties with meat packing plants have led the state in positive cases of COVID-19 and COVID-19 related deaths.

In June, JBS allegedly sent a letter to various employees advising them because their absences stating they are “not in good standing with the company.”

In May Jose Andrade-Garcia, a JBS employee, died because of complications from COVID-19 when he was a week away from his retirement.

LULAC filed an Iowa Workforce Development OSHA complaint in April. The JBS complaint stated that unsafe working conditions at the plant in Marshalltown exist in cutting, processing, break and dressing rooms. The complaint further states JBS employs 2,400 people in Marshalltown “who work shoulder-to-shoulder in most of the meat cutting and processing department rooms at the facility.”

Also in April, JBS reportedly had 34 positive cases of COVID-19, since then it has not publicly released the number of employees who have tested positive.

The LULAC complaint cites meatpacking plants across Iowa and was sent to OSHA after a worker at the JBS facility in Ottumwa tested positive for COVID-19 and another employee was in self-isolation.

Joe Henry, Forward Latino National Vice President, has been involved with workers rights at meat packing plants during the pandemic.

“Tyson and JBS aren’t even trying to follow CDC guidance by distancing workers on the line or slowing line speed. They’re just trying to make as much profit as quickly as they can with their predominantly black and brown workforce in the factory,” Henry said. “That’s not the case for their white collar divisions which are made up of more white or Caucasian people — they are allowed to work from home for their health and safety during this pandemic. Because these companies have received over $150 million just this year in taxpayer money, the USDA must investigate this injustice and act immediately to prevent any further worker illnesses and deaths.”

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Contact Thomas Nelson at 641-753-6611 or tnelson@timesrepublican.com

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