Feds Charge Alabama Hyundai Supplier with Obstructing Health and Safety Investigation

Judge grants DOL request for temporary restraining order against major seat manufacturer that tried to silence whistle blower

Contact: Jack Temple, jack.temple@berlinrosen.com, (646) 200-5280

Selma, Ala. – An Alabama federal judge Thursday issued a temporary restraining order against a major supplier to Hyundai that had threatened workers who spoke out about health and safety concerns and fired a whistle blower.

The judge’s decision came a day after the U.S. Department of Labor, in a decisive move to protect workers’ rights, charged Lear Corp., which manufactures seats for Hyundai, with interfering in a federal investigation over dangerous conditions at its Selma, Ala., plant.

The DOL’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, charged the Hyundai supplier with “flouting the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s protections by threatening,  frivolously suing, and suspending or terminating employees” who have spoken to federal investigators about health and safety concerns at the plant.

“The secretary’s [U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez] current investigation and future enforcement action are threatened with irreparable harm if defendants are allowed to continue to retaliate against the company’s employees through its acts of intimidation for engaging in protected activities,” the DOL wrote in its complaint.

“Such threats, if successful, will prevent witness participation not only in this investigation and enforcement action, but also in other cases by deterring other workers from exercising their right to communicate with the government without fear of retaliation.”

The Selma facility manufactures foam cushions and headrests for Hyundai, which requires the use of the hazardous chemical TDI. The chemical can cause severe respiratory illness and lifelong asthma if handled without proper precautions.

When workers complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that the plant was making them sick, the agency launched an investigation, conducting extensive interviews and tests and concluding that, “some employees had occupational asthma” and other health problems related to the exposures at the facility, according to the complaint filed in Alabama federal court.

As a result of the investigation, OSHA issued fines and citations against Lear for multiple serious violations of federal health and safety laws.

While the federal government continued its investigation, Lear fired Kimberly King, who worked at the factory for nine years, getting paid $12.25 per hour, and who had been a key witness in the government’s investigation. Ms. King was fired after she delivered a letter to Hyundai asking management to help secure good, safe and fair working conditions at the plant. Lear then took a further step to silence the whistle blower by filing a lawsuit and requesting a restraining order against Ms. King, moves the federal government called “tools of harassment the company is utilizing to unlawfully retaliate against Ms. King and other current and former employees.”

Lear is a publicly-traded Fortune 500 company with 235 locations in 35 countries. A major supplier to Hyundai, it had 2013 sales of $16.2 billion and has 132,000 employees.

“Ms. King was a long-term loyal employee of more than nine years, working for an hourly wage of $12.25,” the DOL complaint said. “The disparity in power, control, resources and the ability to inflict harm is clear in the relationship between Ms. King and defendants.”

Despite the harassment, workers at the Selma plant continue to join together to demand safe working conditions.

“I’ve seen all the medication Kim needs to take to help with her breathing. I’ve seen her coughing until it hurts,” said Letasha Irby, who has worked at the Hyundai supplier in Selma since 2006. “It’s shameful and alarming that Lear would try to silence workers standing up for our safety rather than simply accepting responsibility for providing a safe workplace. Workers at this plant are going to continue standing up for the good jobs and safe conditions that this community deserves.”