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Pa. Meat Processor Hit With Suits Over Denied Virus Leave

By Matthew Santoni · Apr 27, 2021, 5:07 PM EDT

Two former employees said a Pennsylvania food company wrongfully denied them leave to care for their children during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, then terminated them in retaliation for taking time off, according to lawsuits filed in federal court.

In separate complaints filed Monday, Warren Rivera-Nigaglioni and Matthew Shepardson both claimed Lancaster County, Pennsylvania-based John F. Martin & Sons falsely claimed it had more than 500 employees in order to duck certain requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — particularly the parts that required the company to provide leave time for workers who had to provide child care because schools or other child care options were unavailable during the pandemic. After both men took time off anyway to care for their families, they were terminated, the suits said.

"Mr. Rivera notified Supervisor, Keith Lehr, of his lack of childcare options due to the closure of schools and childcare facilities relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, Mr. Lehr informed Mr. Rivera that it was mandatory to continue working his regularly scheduled hours and dismissed Mr. Rivera's dilemma," Rivera's complaint said. "Upon information and belief, John F. Martin & Sons deceptively and falsely tabulated their employees to exceed 500 employees, therefore disqualifying the company and its employees from FMLA and associated FFCRA benefits."

The suits both claimed the meat and cheese company retaliated against the men in violation of the FMLA and the FFCRA and accused the company of interference with their rights under those laws.

Rivera, an employee since 2016 in the company's shipping, receiving and inventory department, said Gov. Tom Wolf's order closing schools and nonessential businesses at the start of the pandemic left him without any child care options in March 2020. Having noticed a sign on a John F. Martin & Sons employee bulletin board about the FFCRA, he asked human resources representatives about his options for paid leave to care for his family.

"Mr. Rivera was notified that his need for the leave was not applicable, as the company could only grant FFCRA leave for 5 of the 6 qualifying reasons," Rivera's complaint said. "John F. Martin & Sons intentionally excluded qualifying reason #5 of the FFCRA, which provided leave for an individual who, '... is caring for a child whose school or place of care is closed (or child care provider is unavailable) for reasons related to COVID-19.'"

After trying to press human resources on why the child care leave was not available, another supervisor told him for the first time that the law didn't apply to the company because it had more than 500 employees. The same supervisor suggested Rivera call out of work on days he needed to provide child care, the complaint said.

But after a week of calling off on unpaid leave, the company sent Rivera a letter firing him over his absences, which he claimed was in retaliation for attempting to invoke his rights.

"Shortly after Mr. Rivera began to call off, Mr. Rivera was terminated due to his repeated absence in the workplace," the complaint said. "Mr. Rivera was entitled to benefits to which he was denied and was instead promptly terminated."

Shepardson's suit tells a similar story. He had started taking FMLA leave to care for his then-6-month-old child and was unable to find a replacement caregiver due to the pandemic. He asked for additional accommodations in mid-March of 2020 under the FMLA and the FFCRA but was denied, the suit said.

As head operations trainer and safety coordinator, Shepardson was offered weekday shifts from 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, with additional hours on Saturdays, but the company allegedly failed to offer alternatives to the late shift or take him up on his offer to work from home during the week and at the warehouse on weekends.

"Mr. Shepardson stated his inability to work the proposed weekday hours, as they would require Mr. Shepardson to stay awake for 20-22 hours straight due to childcare responsibilities," the complaint said.

Shepardson said human resources then allegedly failed to make a follow-up call and once again claimed the company had more than 500 employees and was therefore exempt from the law's requirements. Despite his offer to work weekends to make up for his lack of availability during the week, Shepardson said the company terminated him on May 4.

An attorney for the former workers declined to comment Tuesday. Representatives for John F. Martin & Sons did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rivera and Shepardson are represented by Joshua P. Ward and Kyle H. Steenland of J.P. Ward & Associates LLC.

Counsel information for John F. Martin & Sons was not immediately available.

The cases are Rivera-Nigaglioni v. John F. Martin & Sons, case number 5:21-cv-01908, and Shepardson v. John F. Martin & Sons, case number 5:21-cv-01906, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Daniel King.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

Documents

Case Information

Case Title

SHEPARDSON v. JOHN F. MARTIN & SONS, LLC

Case Number

5:21-cv-01906

Court

Pennsylvania Eastern

Nature of Suit

Labor: Family and Medical Leave Act

Date Filed

April 26, 2021


Case Title

RIVERA-NIGAGLIONI v. JOHN F. MARTIN & SONS, LLC

Case Number

5:21-cv-01908

Court

Pennsylvania Eastern

Nature of Suit

Labor: Family and Medical Leave Act

Date Filed

April 26, 2021