Workers headed to a Naknek cannery forced to quarantine in L.A. hotel without pay, lawsuit says

A tender in Naknek on July 10, 2019. (Sage Smiley/KDLG)

A Seattle-based seafood processor is being sued for false imprisonment and failing to pay workers traveling to a Bristol Bay cannery.

The class-action lawsuit was filed against Northern Pacific Seafoods and the Intercontinental Hotels Group in San Francisco Superior Court on Friday.

The complaint, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, claims the processor forced more than 100 of its workers to quarantine in a Los Angeles hotel without pay — or lose their jobs.

The workers, many from Mexico and southern California, were on their way to Bristol Bay to work at the Red Salmon Cannery in Naknek. But first, they were told to go to the Crown Plaza LAX hotel in Los Angeles to be tested for COVID-19 and quarantine for four days, the complaint says.

That’s when things got complicated.

“They told us they had gone there to be processed for employment and were being tested for COVID,” said Jonathan Davis, one of the attorneys who filed the suit on behalf of one of the workers and “all similarly situated individuals.”

Once the workers got to the hotel, he said, they were told to wait in a crowded hallway and fill out paperwork using shared pens, which allegedly put them into close contact with each other for several hours.

“They were in very cramped quarters,” Davis said. “They were very distressed because they were in these close quarters using the same pens. They didn’t feel like proper protocols were being followed.”

The workers then went to individual rooms, where nurses administered coronavirus tests.

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According to the complaint, four days later — the day they were supposed to travel to Naknek — the test results for three of the workers came back positive. All 150 of the workers were told they had to quarantine for an additional 11 days, until June 25.

“Without pay and without the right to leave your room at any time,” Davis said. “The key cards that they were given to access the rooms, our understanding is, they were deactivated. Because if you leave your room, you can’t get back in.”

Davis said the workers were told if they left their rooms they would be fired immediately.

“We know that some workers were fired, ’cause they left the rooms, and we know some workers have left, because they have been very distressed and very upset by this whole situation,” he said.

Davis said he doesn’t know how many workers left or how many were fired. He said the company should have followed the Los Angeles and CDC guidelines, and that requiring people to stay put without pay violates California’s wage and hour laws.

During peak salmon season, Red Salmon Cannery employs about 500 workers, according to the complaint.

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Leauri Moore, with the cannery operator North Pacific Seafoods, said in an email that the workers have since flown in a charter to Naknek, which was provided by the company.

She said North Pacific has been focused on the health and safety of its team and the communities where they work, and that it’s following the Alaska state requirement that seafood workers quarantine for 14 days and test negative for COVID-19.

“We took extensive steps to provide comfortable accommodations where those individuals could remain while they were quarantined,” she said.

Moore said they provided the workers with meals and lodging, allowing them to self-isolate throughout quarantine. She added that each person was tested and retested during quarantine, and that some who did not want to remain in quarantine left the hotel.

A spokesman for the hotel group told the L.A. Times that the company does not comment on pending litigation. But, he said, wanted to stress that the hotel did not prevent any guests from leaving, and it provided safe and comfortable accommodations.

Davis, the attorney, said that since North Pacific decided to operate during a pandemic, it needs to follow through responsibly.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m gonna run this company, but I’m gonna do it on the backs of folks who are gonna have to sit in a room for two weeks, and they can’t leave or they’re gonna be fired, and we’re not going to pay them for that period of time,'” he said. “And certainly if you don’t let people know that’s what you’re intending to do.”

The lawsuit is asking for North Pacific to pay the workers for their time in quarantine. Davis said the fact that the workers have been moved to Naknek doesn’t change anything about the lawsuit — only how much the company would have to pay in compensatory damages.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.