Foster Farms, the US poultry processor, has become the subject of a lawsuit filed by the United Farm Workers union, which claims the company “refused” to follow safety guidelines after a number of workers died from Covid-19 at two of its plants in California.

United Farm Workers (UFW) filed the lawsuit in December with the Superior Court of California in Merced County, which, according to a statement, included a “request for an immediate temporary restraining order” to force Foster Farms’ chicken-processing plant in Livingston, California, “to comply with clear Covid safety rules that the company has refused to follow despite nine workers at the plant dying and over four hundred becoming infected”.

UFW added it was spurred into action by an announcement by Merced County health officials in December that the Livingston plant had suffered a second outbreak on top of the one that broke out in June.

Foster Farms has dismissed the allegations, and said in a statement: “Foster Farms does not comment on active litigation – nor orders related to such – in detail but believes that further adjudication will demonstrate that the company is already in compliance with required protective measures for its workforce, and that the United Farm Workers (UFW) lawsuit is without merit.”

Meanwhile, another facility owned by Foster Farms, the Cherry Street plant in Fresno, California, has also seen an employee die from Covid-19.

“We are saddened by the death at our Cherry Street plant and, out of respect for the family and loved ones, can provide no further details,” Foster Farms said in a separate statement. “Our positivity rate at the plant since mid-December continues to decline. Testing all employees twice per week, we are now at a positivity rate of less than 1%. This compares to a positivity rate in Fresno County in excess of 10%.”

UFW went on to say that Foster Farms has “refused to follow even basic and legally-required state and national safety guidelines”.  

It continued: “For example, the company has failed to create six feet of distance between workers who are required to work on lines for hours at a time, failed in many cases to provide adequate masks, and failed to adequately inform workers of sick leave options.” 

In August, Merced County ordered Foster Farms to close the Livingston plant, which it did on 1 September, and was only allowed to reopen on condition it followed state safety guidelines, the UFW said, but, the union continued, “by that point, Foster Farms accounted for nearly 20% of all virus deaths in Merced County under 65 years old and 40% of deaths in Livingston”.

The facility was reopened on 7 September but UFW claims the “company continued to ignore state health guidelines regarding distancing and protective gear”.

Foster Farms responded: “On December 23, the Merced County court agreed with Foster Farms and rejected the UFW assertion that the company had created a public nuisance. However, it did issue an order essentially requiring Foster Farms to continue to abide by the same Covid mitigation measures that it has been following all along. Foster Farms is fully committed to the health and safety of its employees, and the UFW lawsuit in no way contributes to this.” 

The company added it has performed more than 59,000 Covid tests since the beginning of the pandemic, including more than 25,000 at its Livingston plant since September.

“Foster Farms is working 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 [Merced County]. Foster Farms is actively working with state and county health authorities to ensure that its workforce receives priority for the Covid-19 vaccine.”