When he showed up to install a new wall at a Manhattan apartment over the summer, Robert Petersen says, he didn’t have gloves or goggles. So his boss told him to ignore the swarm of rats, including dead animals, that had infested the ceiling.
Then, it collapsed on him.
“The whole thing came down on me,” the 45-year-old handyman told the New York Post. “Rats, feces, you name it . . . I was disgusted. You feel grossed out. You are itching and scratching.”
Petersen’s encounter with the critters and their droppings landed him in the hospital. Now he’s suing his employer, claiming that he was fired in retaliation for filing a federal safety complaint about the incident.
“It was pretty horrifying,” his attorney, Brittany Weiner, told The Washington Post. “He didn’t believe he had the proper equipment and then spoke up about it, and his belief is he was then fired for doing so.”
Idan Sims, an attorney for his former employer, Exact Builders Group, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Petersen, who had been working with Exact Builders since April, was assigned to an Aug. 20 job at a postwar high-rise in central Harlem, part of a housing co-op near the highway.
It wasn’t until he arrived at the work site that he learned the job would also involving cleaning rat feces and urine, according to a lawsuit filed on Nov. 26 in New York City Supreme Court.
When he told his boss that he needed special protective gear, she allegedly instructed him to go down the street to a plumbing supply store. But the shop didn’t have safety equipment that complied with federal regulations. And because a city inspector was coming to visit the property, there was no time to waste, she said.
“Don’t be a baby, just get it done,” she allegedly told him. “Do what you need to do.”
Petersen said he threatened to call government officials, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the state Health and Labor departments, and poison control. But he followed her orders anyway.
“She made it sound like either do the work or I was going to get fired,” Petersen told the New York Post.
While installing the new wall over the course of days, Petersen said, he had to clean up rat feces and urine on soaked pieces of insulation. While putting up plaster, rats tried to come out into the apartment. But there were no major accidents.
When he finished, his boss sent him to another apartment in the complex to repair a leaking hole in the ceiling. Again, Petersen complained about lacking proper gear, but his boss allegedly sent him to the building’s superintendent, who could offer only garbage bags and gloves.
This time, he had to stick his head through a hole into the ceiling, where he saw “the rats were running around my head,” he said to The Post.
He was pulling down the wet boards in the ceiling when his work site transformed into scene out of a nightmare, or a rodent-themed horror movie, or some sick, twisted combination of both.
“The ceiling collapsed,” the lawsuit said, “causing rats from within the ceiling to fall on his unprotected body.”
He checked himself into the hospital the next day, reporting a laundry list of symptoms that included vomiting, diarrhea, nosebleeds and weight loss. His boss threatened to fire him during his week-long stay in the hospital, Petersen alleges, and he was not paid for the week he took off.
Petersen believes he got sick from the rats and droppings he was exposed to at the work sites, said Weiner, his attorney. So during his time off, he also filed a formal complaint with OSHA, reporting “the unsafe working environment and failure to comply” with regulations.
By the time he returned to his job on Sept. 3, his co-workers ― and allegedly, his boss – had already found out about the complaint.
“[The boss] knows,” a co-worker told him, according to the lawsuit. “She will fire you.”
The following week, he says, she did just that. The job “was not going to work out,” his boss allegedly told him, according to the lawsuit.
Now he charges that his firing was in “direct retaliation” to the complaints.