- The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited a JBS Foods facility in Greeley, Colorado, for "failing to protect employees" from the coronavirus. The department proposed a fine of $15,615.
- The citation of the plant, which operates as Swift Beef Company, was based on an inspection in which the department found the company didn't provide a hazard-free workplace. OSHA said the company received a general duty clause violation, and the fine was the "maximum allowed by law."
- This is the second OSHA fine issued to a meatpacker for the widespread and sometimes fatal outbreaks in plants during the pandemic. Smithfield was fined $13,494 last week after at least 1,294 Smithfield employees got the virus and four died at its facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
About seven months after COVID-19 cases started to spread in this JBS facility, the world's largest meat producer is receiving a $15,615 fine from OSHA. While JBS is saying the citation is without merit, critics are calling it too small and offensive to the workers who died as a result of the outbreaks.
Employees at the JBS beef processing plant in Greeley accused the company of not promoting social distancing and hygiene for weeks early on, and the local union called for the facility to be shut down. After a backlash, JBS announced it would temporarily close its plant in Greeley, but reopened about 10 days later.
JBS has had at least 2,793 positive cases and 14 deaths across its facilities in the United States, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Six workers at the Greeley plant reportedly died from coronavirus.
Filing a complaint with OSHA is an option for workers who don't feel safe in the workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 holds employers responsible for providing a safe workplace and coronavirus guidance from the department says companies are required to maintain injury logs. OSHA said in addition to endangering workers, JBS also didn't provide the department with illness logs in a timely manner after a May inspection.
JBS has 15 business days to comply, ask for a conference or contest the citation.
Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs at JBS USA, said in an email the OSHA citation is "entirely without merit" because it tries to "impose a standard that did not exist in March as we fought the pandemic with no guidance." Bruett said once the OSHA guidance was issued in late April, JBS's preventive measures exceeded its recommendations.
"Every proposed abatement in the citation was implemented months ago in Greeley," Bruett said. "These abatements would have been informative in February. Today, they don’t even meet our internal standards."
JBS said it has implemented precautions including staggered work times, random testing, the use of masks and physical barriers. Bruett said the Greeley plant has had 14 positive cases in the past three and half months, making up 0.4% of its workforce there. There hasn't been a positive test at the plant in almost seven weeks.
When Smithfield was cited, the company similarly said it wasn't provided guidance at the start of the outbreaks and said it plans to contest its $13,494 fine.
The North American Meat Institute said in an email the OSHA fines to both Smithfield and JBS are "confusing and revisionist." The trade group reiterated the companies' arguments that OSHA didn't release guidance until late April and said that PPE and testing was hard to obtain.
"OSHA’s citation faults Smithfield and JBS beginning back on March 22 and March 25 respectively, prior to CDC recommendations to wear a mask, but most important, prior to issuing their own guidelines for the industry," the institute said.
State agencies have also issued citations to smaller meat processors for violations amid the pandemic. California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited two meat producers for not protecting workers, including a proposed $51,190 fine for DL Poultry and $9,000 for Olson Meat Co.
Criticism of these fines is ramping up. Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents more than 3,000 workers at the JBS facility, said in a statement OSHA waited seven months to investigate the conditions that led to this outbreak and is now issuing a "measly" fine. She called it "immoral and unethical," but said it was not illegal under the current administration.
"A $15,000 ‘penalty’ from OSHA is nothing to a large company like JBS," Cordova said. "In fact, it only incentivizes the company to continue endangering its employees."
Saul Sanchez, 78, who spent more than three decades working for a JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, was one of the workers who died of coronavirus. Beatriz Rangel, Sanchez's daughter, told CBS4 that the fine was less than they spent to bury her father.
"It’s a huge slap in the face," Rangel told the local outlet. "They bring in over $50 billion a year, and they get slapped with $15,000? That’s what enables these companies to not care for their employees."
JBS is far from the only company where outbreaks spread, so there may be more citations coming from OSHA. When the pandemic began to spread, meatpacking facilities quickly became hot spots for intense coronavirus outbreaks. More than 42,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive and at least 200 have died, according to FERN data. Many facilities across the food industry shut their doors only after repeated calls to do so.