In late May, two months into Michigan’s stay at home order, the state faced the first major climate disaster of the COVID-19 era. The Edenville and Sanford dams were breached in Michigan after heavy rains caused the floodwaters to exceed 33.9 feet, a record set in 1986 that was previously known as the “the worst natural disaster in the state’s modern history.” The breaching of the dams forced 10,000 people to evacuate the city of Midland.
In response, more than 100 mostly immigrant workers from Florida and Texas arrived in Midland to repair the MidMichigan Medical Center, whose basement had flooded, with some workers continuing on to work in Indiana.
These workers were hired by a Texas-based company, BTN LLC (“Back to New”), owned by a man named Alejandro Fernandez. In Michigan, BTN operated as a hiring agent or subcontractor of a franchise of SERVPRO, a leading disaster restoration company.
As has happened elsewhere when workers have been crowded into employer-provided housing, shared employer-provided transportation, and not been allowed to socially distance or provided with personal protective equipment on the jobsite, a large COVID-19 outbreak spread among the workers, with dozens of cases confirmed. In defiance of public health guidance and Michigan’s executive orders, the companies created dangerous conditions that put the health of resilience workers and the community they had come to rebuild at risk. When workers tested positive for COVID, Fernandez lied to workers and misrepresented instructions from public health officials, improperly discharged workers who had been exposed, and then sent them home, spreading the risk of COVID to their families and to communities through which they travelled, and where they live.
On October 13, Resilience Force and Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice filed a lawsuit against BTN Services, multiple SERVPRO franchises in Michigan, and SERVPRO. The suit was filed by 17 mostly immigrant resilience workers, and three family members including two minor children who contracted COVID-19. We have sued the companies for common law negligence, fraudulent misrepresentation, breach of contract and unjust enrichment, public nuisance, innocent misrepresentation, wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, and forced labor. The complaint was filed in the 42nd Circuit Court for the County of Midland.
With hurricane season in the South, wildfire season in the West, and COVID-19 spreading throughout the country, the U.S. is facing disaster after disaster. It is critical that we recognize the essential role of resilience workers and implement measures to protect them in their workplaces. We must ensure that the private companies who profit from disaster pay and protect the resilience workers who are essential to helping communities adapt and recover.