A congressional committee is looking into whether the nation’s three largest meatpacking companies ignored worker-protection laws — and whether the nation’s workplace safety regulator allowed them to do so.
Meatpackers “have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and lack adequate paid leave, and have shown a callous disregard for workers’ health,” Democratic Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, chair of the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, wrote to JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson.
“These actions appear to have resulted in thousands of meatpacking workers getting infected with the virus and hundreds dying,” Clyburn stated. “Outbreaks at meatpacking plants have also spread to surrounding communities, killing many more Americans.”
Clyburn also took aim at the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, suggesting it failed to do its job of protecting workers. OSHA has faced criticism from worker advocates for what they call a light-handed approach to the pandemic, under which its safety standards were effectively optional and the fines it issues were few and small.
According to Clyburn, the agency waited months after receiving complaints about meatpacking plants to inspect those facilities, and the fines it did impose address “only a tiny fraction” of virus-cased deaths in meatpacking plants, he wrote in a letter to OSHA’s head.
“A swift and forceful response from OSHA could have led meatpacking companies to adopt stronger safety measures, preventing outbreaks and saving lives. But in the last year, OSHA failed to issue enforceable rules, respond in a timely manner to complaints, and issue meaningful fines when a company’s unsafe practices led to the deaths of employees,” he wrote.
“This is an important investigation,” said Deborah Berkowitz, director of the Worker Health and Safety Program at the National Employment Law Project. “The [companies] failed to protect workers and the community — and OSHA looked away so there would be no consequences.”
About 270 workers have died in meatpacking plants since the pandemic began. Research from the CDC suggests that these plants, where workers often toil in close quarters, served as vectors to spread COVID-19 in the surrounding communities.
Tyson Foods leads in worker deaths
No food processor has seen more workers die of coronavirus than Tyson Foods, according to the congressional probe, according to Clyburn. There have been more than 12,000 cases and 39 deaths at the largest meat processor in the U.S., he wrote.
In one Tyson facility, managers allegedly took bets on how many workers would contract the virus, according to a lawsuit filed by the family of a deceased worker. (Tyson later fired seven managers involved in the betting.) The suit also claims that managers were instructed to ignore workers with coronavirus symptoms.
Another lawsuit claims that Tyson managers lied to employees about COVID-19, telling interpreters for the largely immigrant workforce in one plant there were no cases of the virus in the facility, while in fact employees had tested positive and the local health department was pressuring the plant to close.
“Tyson, which reported $2.15 billion in profits and ‘strong returns for shareholders’ in Fiscal Year 2020, does not appear to have taken basic precautions to prevent these outbreaks,” Clyburn wrote in the letter. “For example, Tyson did not carry out facility-wide testing at many facilities where 50 or more workers were infected with the virus.”
A Tyson spokesperson responded to Clyburn’s allegations in a company statement. “Our top priority will always be the health and safety of our people, and we look forward to working with the congressional committee to share what we’ve done and continue to do to protect our team members from the coronavirus,” the spokesperson said.
“We’ve invested more than half a billion dollars during the pandemic to transform our U.S. facilities with protective measures,” the spokesperson continued, “from walk-through temperature scanners and workstation dividers to social distance monitors and additional team member pay and benefits.”
The spokesman noted Tyson was also randomly testing “thousands of workers” a week.
Multiple outbreaks at one JBS plant
JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, suffered outbreaks early in the pandemic, with more than 3,000 employees catching the virus and six plants seeing outbreaks of more than 200 cases.
One JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, has suffered multiple outbreaks, yet it wasn’t until September that OSHA cited the facility for failing to provide workers with a safe environment. Former employees said JBS ignored screening guidelines and tried to convince symptomatic employees to keep working, the Associated Press reported.
In a JBS plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, supervisors added an extra day of work early in the coronavirus epidemic, did not require workers to report illness and did not get masks for their staff until April 2, according to a lawsuit from the family of a deceased JBS worker.
JBS responded in a statement that it spent “$200 million in health and safety interventions, more than $160 million in bonuses and permanent increased pay, and donated more than $50 million to support our local communities.”
“We have implemented hundreds of safety measures including offering unlimited PPE, constructing permanent physical barriers, establishing physical distancing protocols, and installing hospital-grade ventilation systems in all of our facilities,” the statement said.
“JBS USA provides immediate testing to all symptomatic team members and close contacts, and has conducted more than 45,000 surveillance tests of asymptomatic team members to date,” the statement continued. “In addition to the hundreds of safety measures implemented in our facilities, we have voluntarily removed vulnerable population groups with full pay and benefits, covered 100% of all COVID-19 related health expenses for our team members and family members enrolled in our health plan, and offered a $100 incentive bonus for any U.S. team member willing to get vaccinated.”
A $13,000 fine for four worker deaths
Clyburn also took aim at Smithfield Foods, which has seen eight worker deaths and 3,500 cases of coronavirus. In an outbreak in a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant that sickened 1,300 workers, sent 43 to the hospital and killed four, OSHA fined the company $13,494, an amount that Smithfield promised to contest.
“Employees of Smithfield — whose parent company reported $925 million in profit in the first half of 2020 — stated that management failed to implement safety measures until workers got sick and even then continued to require workers to work shoulder to shoulder in some parts of the plant,” Clyburn wrote.
Smithfield issued a lengthy statement saying, in part:
“As a company we have now invested more than $700 million in critical measures to protect employees, including on-site COVID-19 pre-screening and testing facilities; air purification systems; extensive physical barriers at work stations; employee protective equipment, such as shields and masks; significant facility modifications and expansion to ensure distancing in key areas, such as break and lunch rooms; thousands of sanitation stations and prominent banners and signage that outline and encourage safe practices in multiple languages; and the addition of new employees whose sole job is to ensure distancing and sanitation practices are implemented correctly.
“We have also implemented generous leave programs and established policies and protocols to ensure that Smithfield employees are free of a COVID-19 diagnosis and must not have any symptoms of COVID-19 to report to work. We have invested heavily in on-site testing and screening, and have provided generous policies and paid leave to ensure employees stay at home when necessary.”
OSHA sleeping on the job?
Last April, then-President Donald Trump forced meat-processing plants to stay open as essential facilities. But the decree sent the message that producing meat was more important than public health, worker advocates claimed. Unions unsuccessfully sued the agency to try to force it to regulate health and safety more strongly. The agency issued a total of $80,000 in fines for eight COVID-19-related infractions. For companies with profits in the billions, those figures barely register.
“I do hope that one conclusion is that worker safety rights are very weak,” said NELP’s Berkowitz. “If the company thumbs their noses at implementing protections and OSHA fails to inspect, then workers are on their own.”
President Joe Biden has reversed some of the Trump administration’s actions, and has directed OSHA to strengthen its worker-safety guidelines. With more infectious variants of the virus now spreading in the U.S., Clyburn urged OSHA to get to speed with the Biden agenda — quickly.
“It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans,” he wrote.