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House Panel Investigating Meatpacking Plant Covid Outbreaks (2)

Feb. 1, 2021, 3:32 PM; Updated: Feb. 1, 2021, 8:25 PM

A congressional panel overseeing the coronavirus pandemic launched an investigation Monday into Covid outbreaks at meatpacking plants, targeting industry giants and a federal agency for inadequately protecting workers.

Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc., and JBS USA Holdings Inc., received requests from House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Chair Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) to provide information on infections and deaths at plants, along with worker safeguards.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was also directed to submit coronavirus-related complaints, on-site inspections, enforcement actions, and other documents for the investigation.

The Food and Environment Reporting Network estimates at least 56,308 meatpacking workers have tested positive for Covid-19, and 277 have died as of Feb. 1.

Public reports indicate that meatpacking companies “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,” Clyburn said in a Monday letter. “It is imperative that shortcomings in worker protection are identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.”

Meatpackers Press for Covid-19 Vaccine to Protect Line Workers

A social distancing sign is displayed in the meat section of a grocery story.
Photo: Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Meatpacking Infections, Deaths

Tyson Foods, the country’s largest meat processor, has tallied 12,413 coronavirus cases and 39 deaths among its workers — more than any other meatpacking company, Clyburn said.

He pointed to significant outbreaks at facilities in six states, adding, “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.”

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson responded that “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 company has invested more than half a billion dollars in protective measures, such as walk-through temperature scanners, extra employee pay and benefits, and a chief medical officer, Mickelson said in an emailed statement.

At Smithfield, 3,554 coronavirus infections and eight deaths have been reported, Clyburn said. At least five significant Covid outbreaks were recorded at company facilities, including one at a Sioux Falls, S.D., plant that resulted in an OSHA citation. The agency determined the corporation didn’t provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees,” according to Clyburn.

Smithfield countered the claims. “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,” Chief Administrative Officer Keira Lombardo said in an emailed 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.”

The company has invested more than $700 million in employee protective measures, including air purification systems and employee protective equipment, and leave programs, Lombardo added.

OSHA also determined JBS, where 3,084 employees were infected and 18 died, hadn’t provided a safe workplace, Clyburn said. JBS USA is a subsidiary of Brazilian meat-processing giant JBS SA.

Company facilities in six states were all the center of outbreaks, with OSHA issuing a citation for a Greeley, Colo., plant last September, Clyburn said.

“We welcome the opportunity to provide members of the Select Subcommittee information regarding our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce,” JBS USA spokesman Cameron Bruett said in an emailed statement. He added that JBS has spent more than $200 million on health and safety interventions and more than $160 million on bonuses and permanent increased pay, including a $100 vaccination bonus, since the pandemic started.

‘Failed’ OSHA Response

Additionally, under President Donald Trump‘s administration, OSHA “failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” Clyburn said in a letter to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health James Frederick. Frederick, who formerly worked for United Steelworkers, was tapped for his new role last month by President Joe Biden.

“Rather than use its authority to create an enforceable standard, under the previous administration, OSHA only suggested non-binding guidance that companies are free to ignore,” Clyburn said, adding that the agency delivered only eight citations and less than $80,000 in penalties for Covid violations at meatpacking companies.

A spokesperson for the Labor Department said in an emailed statement that the agency is dedicated to working with the subcommittee on their joint commitment to protect workers, and noted that the letter’s requests are focused on the Trump administration’s actions.

Clyburn set a Feb. 15 deadline for the information from the companies, and a Feb. 22 deadline for OSHA.

(Updates with response from OSHA, starting in the 18th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Travis Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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