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Labor Department sues Paccar over firing worker who publicly questioned COVID safety

Feds seeking back wages, damages and rehiring of worker in retaliation complaint

The Department of Labor is suing Peterbilt over the firing of a worker who publicly raised questions about COVID-19 protections at the Peterbilt assembly plant in Denton, Texas. (Photo: Peterbilt Motors)

The U.S Department of Labor is suing Paccar Inc. over the 2020 firing of a Peterbilt Motors Co. worker who publicly questioned the heavy-duty truck manufacturer’s safety procedures to protect workers from COVID-19 infections at its Denton, Texas, plant.

The civil suit was filed last Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. It claims that Peterbilt, a subsidiary of Bellevue, Washington-based Paccar (NASDAQ: PCAR), fired Aaron Carey on March 20, 2020, a day after he emailed the Chamber of Commerce to ask what was being done to address COVID concerns in the Peterbilt plant with 2,000 employees.

According to the Labor Department suit, Carey had raised the questions with plant management and was told that work areas would be cleaned and that work would continue. This was during a time when many U.S. manufacturing plants were shutting down and furloughing workers to slow the spread of the virus.

“It was in this environment of rising fear of exposure to COVID-19 that Carey voiced concerns about the dangers at the assembly plant where workers worked closer than six feet from each other,” the suit said.

Carey filed a retaliation complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on April 20, alleging Peterbilt discriminated against him for exercising his right to express concerns about workplace safety. OHSA investigated, leading to the suit that names Labor Secretary Martin Walsh as the plaintiff.

A Peterbilt spokesman declined FreightWaves’ request to comment on the suit.

‘Pretext for unlawful retaliation’

Denton County had announced its first presumed positive COVID case on March 15, followed by a disaster declaration on March 18 that restricted community gatherings, closed restaurant and entertainment venues, and ordered home isolation for people who tested positive for the virus.

Carey, a member of the Denton Chamber of Commerce, responded to a chamber request that members email questions that would be asked of the mayor of Denton in a Facebook Live session on March 19. In responding to the chamber’s request, Carey reiterated questions he asked human resources and other plant leadership. 

The chamber told Carey his questions were better addressed to plant management, and it forwarded his email to Peterbilt. The next day, Carey was fired. Plant management said his email disclosed personal and trade secret information, and that his work performance was poor. 

“Both stated reasons were untrue and are a pretext for the unlawful retaliation for Carey’s expressing his valid complaints related to workplace safety … and his attempts to secure a safe workplace,” the suit said.

The suit seeks to have Carey reimbursed with interest on his lost wages and benefits from the time of his firing; reinstate him or pay him to search for another job; and expunge his personnel and other company records of the circumstances surrounding his improper firing. It also asks unspecified financial damages for emotional pain and suffering, and punitive damages.

The Labor Department also is seeking to restrain Peterbilt from violating OSHA rules covering workers’ ability to speak out on safety issues and to prominently post an anti-discrimination pledge for 60 days.

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.