Dallas meat plant workers say company refused to close despite COVID-19 outbreak

Dallas News

A community activist representing workers at a Dallas meat processing plant says the company “accelerated production” even after a COVID-19 outbreak sickened employees.

At a news conference Tuesday outside Quality Sausage Co.’s West Dallas plant, Carlos Quintanilla said the company should have shut down and publicly disclosed the problem when it told workers to get tested. He was joined by family members of two workers who later died.

Quality Sausage Co. closed its plant on the 1900 block of Lone Star Drive Friday, county officials confirmed, but the company would not say whether it was due to coronavirus infection.

In response to questions Monday afternoon from The Dallas Morning News, Quality Sausage issued a statement saying the plant will remain closed pending a review of procedures to protect the health and safety of employees. The company said it has adopted multiple safety measures including employee testing, the monitoring of their temperature, daily cleanings, the addition of hand sanitizing stations, and employee face coverings.

“During this pause in production, all employees will continue to be paid. We also expect no disruption in supplying products to our customers at this time, based on current inventory,” the company’s statement said. “As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s knowledge about the virus has increased, we have adapted our procedures to reflect updated health and safety guidance.”

At Tuesday’s press conference, Blanca Parra Gonzalez said her partner Hugo Dominguez died April 25. She said the company wanted him to return to work even though he wasn’t feeling well.

“He was always there for the company,” she said. “The company knew he was in danger. They didn’t care.”

The other worker, Mathias Martinez, died April 24, Quintanilla said. Both men were in their 30s.

“Dozens more” workers are under quarantine while they await test results, Quintanilla said. He said the plant workers reached out to him for help.

“They went to work sick. And this company allowed them to work instead of saying, ‘We’re going to close down,’” he said.

Several meat processing plants across Texas have been hit with coronavirus outbreaks, including one in Dallas run by Mexican prepared foods maker Don Miguel Foods. The plant closed for 14 days after an unspecified number of employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Virus outbreaks also have occurred in food production facilities across the U.S., involving some of the industry’s biggest names, such as Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield Foods and JBS. The outbreaks have raised concerns about worker safety. Some employees at meat facilities owned by JBS and Tyson Foods have died. At some plants, workers have staged walk-outs to protest working conditions.

Blanca Parra Gonzalez, the partner of Hugo Dominguez, speaks out about Hugo’s death due to COVID-19 at a press conference at the Quality Sausage Company in Dallas on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Parra Gonzalez is upset that the Quality Sausage Company encouraged workers, including Dominguez, to keep working throughout the coronavirus pandemic.(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

The office of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, which is tracking COVID-19 infections and deaths with the county health department, said on Monday that it had no information about possible infections at the plant.

Quality Sausage opened in 1976 in Dallas and specializes in precooked meats and pepperoni, according to its website. The company says it provides custom products “to many well-known national and international companies.”

The company says on its website that its manufacturing plant processes “fully cooked and dry sausage products.” And it says “extensive microbiological testing” at the facility ensures food safety.

Quality Sausage also is currently defending itself in a federal whistleblower lawsuit that claims the plant ignored dangerously unsanitary conditions and violated federal food safety practices.

A former plant manager says he was fired after he raised concerns about cross-contamination in the factory and the use of vinegar to hide moldy pepperoni. He also claims three-quarters of the workforce are undocumented immigrants provided by a staffing agency.

Quality Sausage denies the allegations.

The Quality Sausage Company’s location at 1925 Lone Street Drive in Dallas, Texas, partially obstructed by an ongoing construction project.(Hunter Lacey / Special Contributor)

In his whistleblower lawsuit filed in February 2019, Lam Van “Tommy” Nguyen of Arlington said he worked as a plant superintendent for the company from November 2016 to March 2018. His lawsuit said the plant’s 270 workers are mostly undocumented immigrants who do not follow “food safety protocols.”

Nguyen said he reported meat grinders being stored on the floor, moldy pepperoni and the thawing of meat with steam in unsanitary conditions. His lawsuit said he told the company in February 2018 that he saw plant employees “cross-contaminating meats in grinding vats.”

“In other words, chicken was ground in a vat, and then pork was ground in the same vat (or vice versa) but without proper sanitizing between grindings,” the lawsuit said.

Nguyen claims he was fired on March 5, 2018, in retaliation for reporting food safety problems at the plant as well as the company’s hiring practices.

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