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Utah food manufacturer ignored employee’s plea for safety measures, lawsuit alleges

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AMERICAN FORK — A Utah County woman’s disabled daughter remains hospitalized in critical condition with COVID-19 after the woman’s employer — a food manufacturer — ignored her plea for safety measures, according to a new lawsuit.

When Juana Victoria Flores learned that a few co-workers with whom she shared a production line making protein bars for Built Bar had gotten sick following the rumor that one employee on the line contracted COVID-19, Flores said she emailed the human resources department.

“I believe it will be good to have a professional company clean up or fumigate. I believe the lack of ventilation keeps the place infected, we make food and we don’t want more people getting sick,” Flores said in the April 7 email, according to her attorneys.

“I wish the best for the company and felt I needed to let you know. ... I am really concerned.”

Built Bar co-founder and CEO Nick Greer said the company received “a lot of emails” during that time and “shut down our facilities, changed our entire process, put tape on the ground and implemented temperature checks for all employees.” He said the company paid employees while aggressive cleaning, including fumigation, was done at the facility.

“We’ve all faced new challenges. We’ve worked proactively to address these issues to ensure our people and our products are safe,” he told the Deseret News on Saturday.

Before it closed around Easter, the American Fork facility experienced an outbreak of COVID-19, where 6% of staff were infected. The facility was shut down for weeks and reopened less than a month ago. Greer said there hasn’t been a single positive case since reopening.

“We feel for Victoria and her family and we sincerely hope her daughter is able to recover soon,” he said. “I wish we would’ve known about this sooner.”

Greer said he hadn’t heard about Flores or her daughter until news of the lawsuit surfaced on Friday.

The lawsuit states Flores never received a reply to her email, and her employers did not take the necessary precautions to prevent the virus’ spread. On April 8, Flores said she developed a cough and stopped working.

On April 9, Flores’ daughter, who has Down syndrome and cardiac deficiencies, developed symptoms of COVID-19, the lawsuit states. The daughter needed to go to University of Utah Hospital, where she remains in critical condition.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in 4th District Court seeks more than $300,000 in damages, including medical expenses.

The complaint comes after reports that two unidentified Utah County businesses were found in violation of COVID-19 prevention guidelines — including telling employees confirmed to be diagnosed with COVID-19 to still report to work before the required quarantine period ended. Their actions resulted in at least 68 positive cases, officials have said.

Utah County health and political leaders have refused to release the names of the businesses found in violation of guidelines. The Deseret News is fighting for the companies’ names to be released.

Greer said the company has not been found to be in any violation and was recently audited by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food and given “a clean bill of health.” He said he’d welcome any state agency at Built Bar.

“We care deeply about our people, our customers, our partners,” he said.

The first rumors of a sick employee at the protein bar company began circulating March 15, about three weeks before Flores’ email, according to the lawsuit. Flores worked on a production line with at least 10 other employees “in close proximity to one another.”

“As these rumors intensified, (Built Bar) held two separate meetings wherein employees, including (Flores), were issued threats of termination if they discussed anything related to a COVID-19 infection at (Built Bar) facilities,” the lawsuit alleges.

Some employees stopped showing up for work, according to attorneys.

But the business still didn’t give employees protective equipment, masks, gloves or hand sanitizer, according to the suit. Around April 5, Flores said she learned four other co-workers had gotten sick.

Flores was tested for COVID-19 on April 10 and tested positive. She remained under quarantine. Her roommate also soon tested positive for the disease.

The lawsuit alleges that the company “places profits over people” and ignored public health orders, as well as its duty to protect employees and the public, by not offering employees protective supplies and “refusing to suspend operations” to sanitize its facilities.

During a recent special session, Utah lawmakers passed a bill that went into effect last week that creates a safe harbor for Utah businesses when it comes to liability issues and COVID-19 infection. This lawsuit may be the first to test that new law.

The law says immunity would not apply to instances of reckless or intentional infliction of harm or willful misconduct.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the Built Bar manufacturing facility is in Spanish Fork. It is in American Fork.