- The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a citation to a Smithfield Foods' plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for "failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus." OSHA proposed a $13,494 fine, the maximum permitted by law.
- It cited the company for violating its general duty clause because it didn't provide a workplace without hazards that could cause death or harm. At least 1,294 Smithfield employees got the virus and four died, the release said.
- This is the first COVID-19 citation from OSHA. Smithfield Foods was one of many major meat proccesors that have seen outbreaks ravage their facilities amid the pandemic.
This citation is just the latest hit as lawsuits, federal complaints and legislation pile up attacking the meat industry's actions during the coronavirus pandemic. Although the amount of the fine isn't large, it makes a statement. With OSHA saying Smithfield didn't protect its employees, it could mean there may be more citations in the future.
When the pandemic started, meat processing plants rapidly became centers for outbreaks. Since April, more than 40,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive and at least 200 have died, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Many plants only shuttered after repeated calls to close.
The Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota became one of the top COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S. early on. Workers criticized conditions in the plant, which produces 5% of U.S. pork products. Members of the community did a drive-by protest for employee safety as the outbreak spread.
About three weeks after its first reported case, Smithfield decided to temporarily close the facility. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later issued a report revealing Smithfield offered a $500 "responsibility bonus" to employees who did not miss work from April 1 to May 1. The company also sent employees home with information packets about coronavirus in English, even though its workers speak 40 different languages.
When employees feel unsafe at 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. As the pandemic hit, thousands of complaints were filed. In July, Smithfield asked a federal court to keep OSHA from getting documents about employee reports of illness, coronavirus test results and worker interviews.
Smithfield has 15 business days to comply with the citation, ask for a conference with OSHA or contest it.
Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of Smithfield's corporate affairs and compliance, said in an email the citation is "wholly without merit and we plan to contest it." After an investigation reviewing more than 20,000 pages of documents and 60 interviews, Lombardo said OSHA has issued only one citation under its general duty clause for conditions on and before March 23. Lombardo said OSHA didn't issue guidelines for the industry until April 26.
"Despite this fact, we figured it out on our own," Lombardo said. Smithfield recently reported a loss of $72 million after spending $350 million on costs associated with the pandemic, like adding personal protective equipment. "Ironically, OSHA then used what we had done as a model for its April 26 guidance," Lombardo added.
North American Meat Institute CEO Julie Anna Potts said in an email that OSHA is engaging in "revisionism." She said the meat industry is working with government agencies, even with the "inconsistent and sometimes tardy government advice."
However, some unions and politicians have criticized OSHA for the amount of the fine, calling it too small.
UFCW International President Marc Perrone, which represents workers at the plant, called the fine a "slap in the face" to meatpacking workers who have risked their lives to make food for Americans. He said OSHA has been "asleep at the switch" throughout the pandemic.
"Smithfield is a multi-billion-dollar corporation that failed to protect its workers, with multiple deaths and more than a thousand infections on their watch," Perrone said. "This response by OSHA confirms that the company will not face any real consequences."
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who is working on legislation to stop increased line speeds in plants, wrote on Twitter that the "paltry fine" OSHA imposed confirms that "Smithfield put profits before the health of its workers" amid the pandemic.
"Smithfield’s actions led to workers getting sick & dying. There must be real accountability," he wrote.
State agencies have also started issuing fines to meat producers for actions taken during the pandemic. This week, California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration 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.