Publix failed to protect employee who died of COVID-19, lawsuit alleges

Coronavirus

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — As panicked shoppers went out in droves to grocery stores around the world, managers and supervisors at Publix were telling their employees not to wear masks, putting them at risk of contracting the coronavirus, a wrongful death lawsuit alleges.

A suit filed last week by the family of 70-year-old Gerardo “Gerry” Gutierrez claims the grocery store chain refused to allow Gutierrez to exercise his right to wear a mask. Gutierrez died on April 28 after contracting the virus.

“After his coworker tested positive for the virus, Gerry was sent home to isolate. Soon thereafter, he developed a cough and a fever. Within days, he tested positive and was hospitalized. Publix eventually changed course, but for Gerry, that was too little too late,” lawyers wrote in a statement about the lawsuit. “On April 28, he died alone in the hospital. His four grown children had to say goodbye over a video call.”

According to the lawsuit, Gutierrez was working at a Publix on West Avenue in Miami Beach in late March when another employee began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. The lawsuit claims Publix failed to send the employee home, despite the employee being infected. Lawyers argue Publix was aware, or at least should have been aware of the infection.

The suit claims Publix “minimized, downplayed, misrepresented, and otherwise concealed” the risk of COVID-19 to its employees and prohibited PPE.

“Gerardo Gutierrez was told by Publix that he could not wear a mask despite the fact that he wanted to wear one, but he continued to go to work each day because he believed Publix’s statements that it was taking all measures necessary to keep him safe,” the suit stated.

Michael Levine, the attorney representing the family, said the company had been prioritizing profits over the health of its workers.

“You have a company like Publix that profited greatly throughout the pandemic on the backs of employees like Gerardo Gutierrez, and you’d imagine the least they could do for those people who showed up at work was to protect their own employees,” Levine said. “And then to learn they wouldn’t let their employees wear masks, because they thought it would scare off their customers. That’s just very troubling.”

The family’s suit cites complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from other Publix stores about the barring of masks.

“The sudden passing of our father has been a devastating loss to our family,” Ariane Gutierrez, Gerry’s daughter, said in the statement. “Our family is in shock that Publix would prevent its employees from staying safe. Because of its careless decisions, our father is not here with us today.”

Publix, which is based in Lakeland, has 1,258 stores in the Southeast and employs over 225,000 people, according to its website.

The company has not responded to News Channel 8’s request for comment.

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