Employees, and their family members, of O-AT-KA Milk Products have been expressing concern this week about how the company has responded to the outbreak of COVID-19 in our community.
In emails to The Batavian and in social media posts, both employees and family members have accused the company of making employees work even though they might have been exposed to a person who tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the past week, Genesee County has gone from 17 confirmed cases to 70 people who have tested positive for COVID-19. In that same period, surrounding rural counties have not seen a similar spike.
It's unclear how much of the more than 400-percent increase in positive cases are connected with O-AT-KA but sources have indicated as many as 20 people who work at the facility have tested positive.
O-AT-KA CEO William Schreiber declined today to answer a question about how many employees have been infected.
At the beginning of the week, the Health Department reported the first sharp increase in cases -- 10 new cases -- and the department press release said many of the cases, including a big jump in mandatory quarantines, could be attributed to one employee going to work while symptomatic.
At that time, Public Health Director Paul Pettit said, "A significant increase in the number of mandatory quarantines being reported today is due to a symptomatic person going to work at a local business."
Pettit declined to name the company then nor discuss now specific complaints from employees about O-AT-KA.
Since Monday, the Health Department has indicated that several of the people who were on mandatory quarantine as of Monday have since tested positive.
Two sources said there were two confirmed COVID-19 cases at O-AT-KA on Monday.
The specific complaints sent to The Batavian about O-AT-KA:
- Employees with direct contact with infected coworkers have been told to report to work until they develop a fever;
- Employees with a fever are required to produce a doctor's note for an approved absence from work;
- Employees are told to wear masks but masks are not issued to employees;
- Employees are encouraged to remain six feet apart but some job duties, such as training new coworkers, make that impossible.
One of the features of the virus SARS-CoV-2 is that people can be infectious before becoming symptomatic, and perhaps remain asymptomatic, and a fever is not necessarily the first symptom of illness.
During a phone call today, we asked Schreiber repeatedly to respond to these specific allegations and he declined.
He did read a prepared statement:
We have taken every precaution to protect our employees. We have followed the guidelines of every regulatory agency involved since the start of the pandemic and most importantly, as part of our response, our leadership team has worked to ensure our employees are safe and that they have the tools and resources needed to be successful.
O-AT-KA is not the only local company under scrutiny from employees. The Batavian has received emails about two other local employers, deemed essential businesses by the State of New York, that say their bosses are not taking coronavirus precautions seriously.
One employee, who said the employees' complaints have gone to the Attorney General's Office, was specific about lack of sanitizer, personal protection gear, and inattention to social distancing.
The employee said, "With the number of people that come to work at this plant from outside counties and cities, it is only a matter of time before someone infected comes to work and it will spread like wildfire. We should be closed right now. We should be home, safe with our families until our government deems it that we are safe to go back to work."