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Worker fired a day after safety complaints

Ex-poultry supervisor complains under N.C. law but investigators say the law doesn't cover his case, now being pursued in federal court.

By Ames Alexander
aalexander@charlotteobserver.com

Thomas Jurrissen was fired from his job at a poultry plant in Reidsville the day after he reported safety problems there.

That's no coincidence, he contends.

Jurrissen, a maintenance supervisor at a Keystone Foods plant that processed chicken nuggets for McDonald's, told auditors in 2007 about problems that he believed could affect the safety of both the food and the employees who process it, records show.

Among other things, Jurrissen reported his concerns about metal safety guards on equipment, and about a broken grate – a possible violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration laws, records show.

North Carolina's Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act prohibits companies from firing workers simply because they report OSHA violations.

Jurrissen filed a complaint under the act, but state investigators quickly concluded there was no violation. Their reasoning: The auditor to whom Jurrissen complained was examining food safety and quality – not workplace safety – so his complaint wasn't covered by REDA. That echoed the argument Jurrissen's employer had made in a letter to the N.C. Labor Department.

Records show, however, that Jurrissen said he also complained about workplace safety issues. Notes from an interview conducted by a state labor department official show that Jurrissen spoke about the broken grate – and about the auditor's belief that it was an OSHA violation.

Several workers' compensation lawyers interviewed by the Observer questioned the state's dismissal of Jurrissen's complaint.

“If he really did complain about OSHA issues, then they screwed up,” said Charlotte lawyer Bob Bollinger, who did not represent Jurrissen.

Jurrissen and his lawyers declined to talk about the case because they're contesting his firing in federal court.

Keystone Foods said it does not discuss the details of personnel issues. But the company issued a statement saying that Jurrissen's claims weren't supported by the Department of Labor or the N.C. Employment Security Commission, which reviewed his application for unemployment benefits.

The ESC concluded that he wasn't entitled to full benefits, partly because he failed “to meet company expectations” and spoke to an inspector without consulting a company manager, according to commission records.

“Keystone Foods takes great pride in the cooperative relationship between our management and our employees in achieving a safe work environment,” the company stated.

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