State AG looking into Sumitomo Dunlop after complaints of "unsafe working conditions"

Company has stayed open during COVID-19
Letitia James
Posted at 1:58 PM, Apr 07, 2020

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The office of State Attorney General Letitia James is looking into one of Western New York's largest manufacturers after complaints by workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said the AG contacted the Town of Tonawanda tire manufacturer Monday after receiving complaints of "unsafe working conditions" at the factory, which has remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The action, while not characterized as a full-scale investigation by state officials, follows reporting by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team in which multiple employees voiced concerns about why the plant was not shutting down during a global pandemic.

Sumitomo HR director Russell Pustulka said in an email, "We are transparently working with any public office or any agencies that has questions regarding our commitment to a safe environment for our team. Additionally we reached out to the Erie County Executives (sic) team and looking for opportunities to clarify and support. We have zero Covid 19 cases as reported last week and we will always take precautionary measures to ensure the health of the team."

On March 23, Sumitomo Rubber North American CEO Richard Smallwood said the company received approval to stay open because the transportation industry is one of 16 sectors deemed critical by the federal government.

On April 1, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said, "It probably doesn't need to be open and it would probably be in their best interest to close for their workers," but he said the state, not the county, has the authority to determine which companies are deemed essential.

Sumitomo that day also released figures related to health screenings that stated zero employees had received a positive test result from COVID-19.

Public health officials have been urging people to stay home and avoid any unnecessary contact to stop the spread of the virus, and multiple workers said they feared for their safety by reporting to work. The company did offer a voluntary layoff -- taken by roughly 100 employees -- but some workers complained that they only had a weekend to consider the one-time offer.

The AG's office has not yet heard back from the Japanese tire company, the state official said.