Labor and civil rights groups gathered in Gainesville Tuesday, March 23, to call for the reforms they want to see in the wake of the Jan. 28 nitrogen leak that killed six people at Foundation Food Group in Gainesville.
“It is time to put people before profit,” said League of United Latin American Citizens CEO Sindy Benavides.
The group in Gainesville included representatives from the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the Georgia AFL-CIO, Poder Latinx and the League of United Latin American Citizens, who spoke outside of the Interactive College of Technology on Browns Bridge Road.
Benavides said they were calling on the poultry processing plant on Memorial Park Drive to allow workers to come forward regarding the investigation without fear of reprisal.
She also called on President Joe Biden to “protect our immigrant poultry workers so that they can come forward to federal investigators without fear of arrest or deportation” and to provide more resources for the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
Stephanie Lopez-Burgos, of Georgia Familias Unidas, read a statement from a worker about how the incident on Jan. 28 changed them. “I was left in a shocked state of mind because I was so close to not returning home to my children,” the statement read.
The worker’s statement also said they returned to work because they needed the money but that they were not mentally prepared to go back.
Georgia Familias Unidas also released a list of demands, including complete compensation of lost wages for injured workers, as well as removal of barriers to medical care. Foundation Food Group representatives did not respond to The Times’ request for comment regarding some of the demands by press time Tuesday.
In a previous statement, the company said it extended its “continued sympathies and prayers to the families and friends of those lost.” Charlie Flemming, Georgia AFL-CIO president, said the Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021 being considered in Congress “must become the law of the land.”
Among other items involving the right to strike, union representation and workers’ rights, the bill says that “when an employee has been discharged or suffered serious economic harm in violation of the (National Labor Relations Act), the (National Labor Relations Board) shall award the employee backpay (without any reduction based on the employee’s interim earnings), front pay, consequential damages and ‘an additional amount as liquidated damages equal to 2 times the amount of damages awarded,’” according to a factsheet created by the House Committee on Education and Labor.
The bill passed in the House of Representatives earlier this month. Flemming said the bill would give workers the “power to speak up on the job without fear of retribution.”
Six people were killed and a total 12 people were hospitalized after the Jan. 28 nitrogen leak at Foundation Food Group, and operations resumed at the processing plant on Feb. 24.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office announced March 12 that the autopsies revealed all six deaths were by asphyxiation from liquid nitrogen exposure.
Six wrongful death lawsuits and one personal injury suit with multiple plaintiffs were filed in Gwinnett County State Court in the weeks since the leak against the chemical company responsible for the liquid nitrogen system.
Hall County Fire Services were called out March 11 concerning a potential leak earlier that day, but Division Chief Zach Brackett said they “found no hazards, including ammonia, to be present.”