Company official disputes claims workers fired after seeking medical aid for Covid-19

One of the owners of a Crowley, Louisiana, crawfish processing plant is disputing claims from two employees that they were fired for leaving the job site to seek medical help after contracting the coronavirus, according to the Rayne Acadian-Tribune.

State health officials appear to be backing his argument.

Reyna Isabel Alvarez Navarro and Maribel Hernandez Villadares, both from Mexico, have filed complaints against Acadia Processors of Crowley with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and National Labor Relations Board.

The two women, who worked on temporary visas at Acadia Processors, allege in the federal complaints that they caught the coronavirus at work and were fired from their jobs for leaving work to go to the hospital.

Scott Broussard, one of several owners of the business, said no one was fired from the company, but some left and did not return.

The women, according to the documents, arrived at Acadia Processors on Jan. 30 on H2B temporary work visas, both electing to pay $50 a month for housing at or near the work site where around 50 women shared a kitchen and bathroom and eight women shared a bedroom equipped with bunk beds, putting them “in extremely close contact (with co-workers) throughout the night.”

In the processing plant, Navarro’s statement reads, “I worked elbow-to-elbow with my co-workers for nearly 12 hours a day in a cold, unventilated space,” without protection such as face masks, even after some employees showed symptoms of COVID-19 in March.

By May, she said, nearly half the H2B workers, including her and Villadares, had symptoms.

Supervisors, they said, in early May put workers on quarantine, not allowing them to leave the property. Both women said their health declined as they were hit with fever, coughs and had difficulty breathing. Both alleged they feared they would die without medical assistance.

On May 15, the documents state, the company held an employees’ meeting to explain they were moving COVID-19-positive H2B workers to another site for quarantine, with food and medical care to be provided. The women said they didn’t believe medical care would be provided fast enough, if at all, and feared they might die, so they packed their bags and went to the hospital.

A supervisor immediately fired the women and said they would be reported to immigration officials, Julie Pitman, a legal fellow with Centro de los Deechos del Migrante in Baltimore, Maryland, wrote in the complaint.

Broussard explained that three companies operate at the same address, 919 W. Second St., Crowley, employing 168 people. One of those companies is Acadia Processors.
“We have 100 employees with that company,” he said. “It’s amazing that you have two that will say that. We have 98 of them that are here working today that have said, ‘thank you for taking care of us.’”

According to Broussard, company officials met with employees in small groups to answer questions about the virus. The company couldn’t locate masks for employees, so he had 500 masks made for employees. When workers came down with symptoms, he said, he met with Dr. Tina Stefanski, Region 4 Medical Director for the Office of Public Health, and her staff and implemented their recommendations.

“I can tell you we took every precaution that we possibly could,” he said.

Broussard conceded there are a lot of women staying in two houses, which are not operated by Acadia Processors, he said, so it’s difficult to social distance. But once he realized the virus was present, he arranged for all employees to be tested, at no expense to the employees, paying $10,000 to do so, he said.

“I paid that out of my pocket,” Broussard said. “Without these people, I couldn’t run my business.”

Broussard said he worked closely with state health officials to find alternate housing, apparently at a Louisiana state park, where those testing positive could stay quarantined and receive medical care and other services.

“All have recovered,” he said. “They’re all in good shape. They’re all back to work and happy and thankful.”

Stefanski has verified and validated that Broussard “was fully cooperative,” calling LDH countless times to make sure he was following state and CDC guidelines.
“He followed all our recommendations to the T,” Stefanski said. “He communicated with us quite frequently. He took steps to protect his employees and the community. He was really a model of what an employer should do in that situation.”