Meat-processing plants, where thousands of workers have fallen ill with COVID-19, are facing scrutiny from a U.S. House subcommittee for reportedly failing to follow worker safety laws.
Rep. James Clyburn, chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, sent letters this week to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and meat-processing companies Tyson Foods, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods to alert them about the investigation and request documents.
At least 56,385 meat-processing workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 277 employees have died as of Tuesday, according to data collected by the investigative nonprofit Food and Environment Reporting Network.
Under the Trump administration, OSHA isued eight citations and less than $80,000 in total penalties for coronavirus-related violations at meat-processing companies, the subcommittee said, describing that as a “paltry amount that has failed to curb dangerous conditions faced by many workers.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, said the agency has received the subcommittee’s letter and will cooperate with the investigation.
In the letters to the companies, the subcommittee said public reports suggest that they have failed to take basic safety precautions or provide adequate paid leave, and have demonstrated “a callous disregard for workers’ health.”
There have been at least 41 major outbreaks in 20 states among the three companies, including multiple outbreaks in the same facilities, according to the House subcommittee.
JBS USA has had at least 3,000 employees catch the coronavirus, of which 18 of them died, the subcommittee said.
More than 12,000 workers at Tyson Foods have gotten sick with COVID-19 and 38 died from the illness. At one Tyson plant, managers allegedly instructed workers to stay on the job and took bets on how many would contract the virus.
The coronavirus reportedly has infected more than 3,500 workers at Smithfield Foods and killed eight workers, according to the House panel.
Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer for Smithfield Foods, pushed back against assertions of negligence, saying the company takes its responsibility to protect its employees seriously while continuing to provide food nationwide.
“From early in the pandemic, we have taken extraordinary measures to protect our team members from the virus and we have met or exceeded the prevailing federal, state and local health and safety guidance, including with personal protective equipment,” Ms. Lombardo said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that there are inaccuracies and misinformation in the media on this issue and we look forward to providing the Subcommittee with correct information.”
Smithfield Foods says it has spent more than $700 million in safety measures for its employees including on-site COVID-19 pre-screening and testing, air purification systems, physical barriers at work stations, protective equipment for workers, sanitation systems, signage in multiple languages to encourage safe practices and facility modifications and expansion to ensure distancing in areas such as break and lunch rooms.
The food producer said it also has hired more employees to make sure distancing and sanitation practices are being followed as well as instituted paid leave programs and policies to ensure workers don’t have COVID-19 when reporting to work.
Tyson Foods said it looks forward to working with the congressional committee to share what steps it has taken to protect staff from COVID-19.
The company said it has invested more than a half a billion dollars in protective measures such as walk-through temperature scanners and social distance monitors. The company said it is using random testing to find the virus, testing thousands of workers a week, and has also hired a chief medical officer.
JBS USA said it has invested more than $200 million in health and safety measures, more than $160 million in bonuses and permanent increased pay, and more than $50 million in donations to support local communities.
In addition to providing unlimited personal protective equipment and implementing social distancing protocols, the company said it has installed hospital-grade ventilation systems, and immediately tests all symptomatic workers and close contacts. It also has tested more than 45,000 asymptomatic employees so far.
The company added that it voluntarily removed vulnerable workers with full pay and benefits, covered 100% of all COVID-19 related health expenses and offered a $100 incentive bonus for workers willing to get vaccinated.
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