The uproar over "pink slime" beef products may have claimed some collateral damage, with a meatpacking worker in California saying she and her colleagues were laid off without notice in the wake of a bankruptcy filing by AFA Foods Inc.
In her class action lawsuit, filed in bankruptcy court in Delaware this week, Nadia Sanchez asserts that she and 200 co-workers were abruptly laid off early last month when AFA decided to shutter a plant in Southern California amidst an Internet backlash to its controversial beef-trimmings product. The lawsuit says the workers weren't given the 60-days advance notice required under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act and California labor law.
Sanchez's lawyer, René S. Roupinian of New York, told HuffPost that the low-wage meatpacking workers weren't given any written warning of the impending layoffs. Of the roughly one dozen AFA workers to whom Roupinian and her colleagues have talked, she said, most appeared to be from Mexico, like Sanchez, and worked on the floor of the meatpacking plant.
"They were rank-and-file employees," said Roupinian. "Very few of them speak English ... so we think that contributed to their essentially not being aware of the right-to-warn notice and [made] it hard for them to reach out and retain counsel."
Roupinian said the workers earned an average of about $8.25 an hour, for an annual salary of roughly $17,000. They worked in a plant just south of downtown Los Angeles, where the mandated living wage for workers on city contracts is $10.42 an hour.
AFA and its owner, California-based investment firm Yucaipa Companies, did not respond to requests for comment. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by Bloomberg.
AFA filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 on April 2, after response to the media swirl surrounding "pink slime" had drastically cut into the company's business. In court papers, the firm's CEO said that the negative coverage had called the meat's "wholesomeness" into question, which "dramatically reduced the demand for all ground beef products."
Known in the meat industry as finely textured beef or boneless lean beef trimmings, "pink slime" is a cheap filler made from finely ground beef scraps and treated with ammonia to kill bacteria. Although the product has been on the market for more than a decade -- and long assailed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver -- a public furor over its use started in March after an article in The Daily reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture planned to buy the product for a school lunch program. A Texas mother and blogger launched an online petition calling for the USDA to scrap its plan, and "pink slime" soon became an Internet buzzword accompanied by revolting photos. (For a full timeline of the uproar, see here.) Companies including grocers Safeway and Supervalu announced they would stop buying the product.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack declared the product safe to eat, but the meatpacking industry couldn’t stop the fallout. South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., the lead maker of the filler, had to close three of its four plants and lay off 650 rank-and-file workers, and the company said earlier this week that pink slips may soon hit corporate headquarters as well.
The 23-year-old WARN Act requires that companies give workers at least 60 days' notice before a plant closing or other mass layoff covered under the federal law, which generally applies to companies with more than 100 workers. The act exempts companies that have suffered "unforeseeable business circumstances," and AFA may argue that the negative publicity surrounding "pink slime" was sudden and beyond its control. California's version of the WARN Act, however, does not include that exemption, noted Roupinian.
"They won't be able to take advantage of that" under the California claim, she said.
In the lawsuit, Sanchez is asking for back pay as well as damages for herself and her former colleagues.
According to Roupinian, Sanchez is still looking for a job.