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Companies sued over COVID-19 outbreak among flood recovery workers

flooded street in Midland
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Two companies arefacing a lawsuit after a COVID-19 outbreak among workers who helped with re-building efforts in Midland and Bay counties.

Servpro Industries and BTN Services brought the workers from Florida to mid-Michigan after this spring’s catastrophic floods.

A COVID-19 outbreak soon followed. The lawsuit says that’s because the companies failed to take proper workplace safety precautions, after luring the workers to Michigan with false claims about workplace safety.

“Defendants misrepresented safety precautions that would be taken; purposefully misrepresented instructions from public health officials; and improperly discharged workers who had been exposed,” says the complaint filed by the Detroit-based Sugar Law Center, and the Resilience Force Justice Project. The lawsuit says the defendants then sent the workers home, spreading the risk of COVID-19 to their families and to other communities.

According to the lawsuit, at least 17 workers contracted COVID-19, and some spread it to their families, including two minor children named in the lawsuit. Two of the workers became critically ill, according to the Sugar Law Center’s John Philo.

“We have two folks who were put on ventilators, and one who has over $300,000 in medical bills,” Philo said. “Folks did have very real costs that they were paying for through medical care and testing. And they do want to be paid back for what they have been put through because of what these defendants did.”

According to the legal complaint, the safety issues began before workers even arrived on the job. They were transported from Florida to Michigan in crowded vans. Once they arrived, they were housed four to a hotel room, with two people sharing a bed. The worksite did not perform COVID-19 screenings, provided inadequate personal protective gear, and otherwise failed to take basic safety precautions, the complaint says.

The complaint says once some workers began feeling sick, some sought COVID-19 tests on their own. After some tested positive, the suit alleges BTN failed to report the cases to their contacts. Despite being told by county health department officials to quarantine locally, BTN supervisor Alejandro Fernandez, on whom most of the workers depended to translate from Spanish to English, instead sent them home. Some of the Michigan workers were then sent to the site of a warehouse fire in Indiana, where another COVID-19 outbreak occurred.

Philo said the companies also wrongly denied the workers overtime pay, payment for travel time, and promised driver bonuses. He said the workers are seeking monetary damages, and better future working conditions. “You can't go undo the past, but you can send the message and hold folks accountable for the past so that actions change in the future,” he said.

A spokesperson for Servpro said the company will put forth a complete response to the allegations, but in the meantime declined to comment on pending litigation. A BTN representative could not be reached for comment.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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