Two Utah businesses became a hotspot for COVID, here’s what happened
Nearly two months after Utah County officials posted a letter to Facebook stating two local businesses had seen a combined 68 positive coronavirus cases, the names of the businesses have at last been released: Built Brands LLC, a protein bar company based in American Fork, and Wasatch Truss, a building materials company in Spanish Fork.
The names were finally released after a lawsuit in which KSL TV sued Utah County after county officials denied an open records request. Judge Christine Johnson ruled in KSL TV’s favor on Monday, June 29, and gave the county 48 hours to release the requested records.
Utah County health inspectors first became aware of a “troubling trend” in Payson, where many Wasatch Truss employees live, in mid-April. One email, obtained from the Utah County health department, details an interview with an employee where the employee states they were told someone in the company had tested positive and several workers were absent or sent home.
On April 22, Wasatch Truss closed its facilities for disinfection and thereafter began testing employee temperatures, requiring masks, and providing as much personal protective equipment as possible. According to an email from Rebecca Fronberg with the Utah Department of Health, this small company with just 100 employees had 25 confirmed cases as of April 24 and it’s possible more employees were exposed.
Interviews with two employees from Built Brands and a lawsuit reveal a lack of concern or protection for employees and their health. “The manager’s secretary told each of [the employees] that they were not to disclose to any coworkers their infections,” one employee states. “That this would cause a panic.”
In Utah County Health Department emails sent on April 13 and 14, health inspectors relayed interviews with Built Brands employees discussing the situation. Several employees have family members with fragile health, the employee said, and were unhappy to learn their coworkers had been infected.
A second employee also reported being told to keep quiet about testing positive for COVID-19 and that they should return to work as soon as they felt better. This employee felt he wouldn’t have gotten sick if the manager was preventing sick people from coming to work. “It is a travesty that no one was told to quarantine or have us monitor their symptoms,” says Lisa Guerra, an epidemiologist who interviewed one of the employees.
The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food inspected Built Brands on April 15, after which the company was disinfected by professionals, and Built Brands pledged to provide employees with personal protective equipment.
As of April 17, Richard Beckstrand, manufactured food program manager at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF), maintained that Built Brands “looks like a potentially BIG problem,” with 19 confirmed cases and 50 employees with symptoms. “They could be looking at a situation where they run out of employees who are able to meet the definition of no illness or no exposure,” he says. “That’s why I tend to believe some of the stories about employees being pressured to work while having active symptoms of COVID.”
Former Built Brands employee Juana Victoria Flores is suing the company for failing to protect employees against COVID-19, and then firing her for voicing her concerns to management. The lawsuit alleges that on or around March 15, rumors began circulating that an employee had contracted COVID-19. As rumors “intensified,” the Built Brands held two separate meetings where employees were threatened with termination if they discussed “anything related to a COVID-19 infection,” at the company’s facilities.
As more employees stopped showing up for work, the lawsuit states, Built Brands did not provide employees with personal protective equipment. On April 7, Flores sent an email to the Built Brands HR department, expressing her concerns and making suggestions, closing it with, “I wish the best for the company.”
Flores did not receive a response to her email, according to the lawsuit, and as demonstrated by the inspection by UDAF on April 15, Built Brands did not take any precautions at the time. Two days after she sent her email, Flores began showing symptoms of COVID-19. Her daughter, who has Down’s Syndrome and respiratory cardiac deficiencies, was admitted to the hospital April 9 and tested for COVID-19. The lawsuit states Flores’s daughter is still in the hospital in critical condition. On April 13, Flores tested positive for COVID-19.
Flores’s lawsuit seeks damages for an amount “to be ascertained at the time of trial,” but an estimated “more than $300,000” is sought to cover medical expenses, lost wages, and physical, mental and emotional damages.
According to an investigation from Fox 13, Built Brands sent out a company-wide message stating HIPAA prohibits discussing the health of fellow employees and violation of this would result in employee termination. However, Fox 13 spoke with several lawyers who stated that employees are well within their rights to discuss their health.
“A normal private company like that and coworkers talking about each other’s health is not a HIPAA issue,” one attorney told Fox 13.