- The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced that two more food plants were cited for coronavirus violations and received proposed fines.
- A JBS facility in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was cited with a $13,494 proposed fine for violations including employees working in too close proximity. A Conagra Brands facility in Marshall, Missouri, was also cited with a proposed fine of $2,121 for a record-keeping violation.
- OSHA has cited 112 establishments across industries, including four food and meat plants, for coronavirus-related violations since the pandemic began through Oct. 15, totaling $1,603,544 in proposed fines.
This is the second JBS plant to be cited for an OSHA violation. In September, OSHA cited a JBS facility in Greeley, Colorado, for "failing to protect employees" from the coronavirus because they didn't provide a hazard-free workplace and proposed a fine of $15,615. A Smithfield Foods' plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was also cited in September for not providing a workplace without hazards, its proposed fine was $13,494.
After those citations were announced, many criticized OSHA for the fines being too small.
"I think it's true that workers felt like these fines were worse than nothing because what they signal to the industry is go ahead, keep your unsafe practices, we're not going to do anything about it," Debbie Berkowitz, who previously worked at OSHA and is now worker health and safety program director at the National Employment Law Project, said.
Now another one of JBS' plants is being fined, for roughly $2,000 less than its last penalty, for similarly not providing a safe workplace. OSHA said in the ciation that in April the Wisconsin plant "did not develop and implement timely and effective measures." It specifically cites that employees working at tables 1-6 of the fabrication department were too close together and that allowed for an outbreak. As of April 22, JBS had 147 positive tests out of 1,265 workers at that plant, OSHA said.
This new OSHA fine adds to the other hurdles JBS is facing for its handling of the pandemic. Whistleblowers at JBS' Colorado facility have recently claimed the company asked employees to pay $100 for coronavirus tests and that employees who were coughing were told to continue working, the Greeley Tribune reported. JBS and other major meat companies are also facing lawsuits and investigations into how they handled the pandemic.
The Conagra plant, which makes frozen meals, received the smallest proposed fine of all the food plants that have been cited by federal OSHA. In April, the plant temporarily shuttered after the company disclosed that about 20 employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Conagra Brands Senior Director of Communication Daniel Hare said in an email the record-keeping infraction "was in no way related to our safety practices at the Marshall facility. We continue to be proactive in implementing measures to keep people safe and healthy during the pandemic."
States agencies have also issued fines to food facilities. California’s OSHA cited two smaller meat producers for not protecting workers. DL Poultry's proposed penalty was $51,190 and Olson Meat Co. received a proposed fine of $9,000. Meanwhile, Iowa's OSHA division also issued a $957 fine to an Iowa Premium Beef plant for a record keeping violation.
Food processing facilities, especially meat plants, became coronavirus hotspots when the pandemic started. Since April, more than 48,000 meatpacking workers and 12,000 food processing workers have tested positive and almost 300 have died, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Many plants only shut down operations after repeated calls to close.
If employees feel unsafe at their place of work, they can file a complaint with OSHA. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 says employers are responsible for a safe and healthy workplace. When the pandemic hit, thousands of complaints were filed. But a report for co-authored by Berkowitz for NELP found that from 1,744 coronavirus retaliation complaints filed by workers from the beginning of the pandemic through August 9, only 348 complaints were docketed for investigation and just 35 complaints were resolved in that time period. About 54% of the complaints were dismissed without investigation, the report found.