Democrats Probe Tyson, Smithfield, OSHA Over Covid Outbreaks

A Democratic-led House panel is launching a probe into coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants and whether the Occupational Safety and Health Administration adequately enforced worker safety rules.

Representative James Clyburn, who chairs the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, sent letters Monday to Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc., and JBS USA requesting information on the number of sick employees, facility closures, safety measures and leave policies for when workers tested positive. Almost 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the U.S. have tested positive for Covid-19, and at least 270 have died, Clyburn said in the letters.

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,” the letters to the companies said.

Tyson shares slipped 0.2% in New York trading after earlier falling by as much as 2.7%. Brazil-based JBS rose 0.2% in Sao Paulo trading after dropping as much as 1.7% following the announcement of the probe.

Clyburn also asked OSHA to explain the relative lack of citations and penalties issued against meatpacking plants under the Trump administration as the facilities became an epicenter of spread for the virus.

“OSHA issued penalties related to the coronavirus totaling over $3.9 million, but the agency issued only eight citations and less than $80,000 in penalties for coronavirus-related violations at meatpacking companies,” the letter said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor said the letter and its request are focused on the Trump administration’s actions and that the current administration is committed to working with Clyburn to protect workers. On Friday, OSHA issued new guidance calling for stronger workplace protections for the virus.

OSHA’s response to the pandemic under Trump was an “utter failure” that “cost workers their lives,” and the probe is “welcome news,” said Mark Lauritsen, director of food processing and meatpacking for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

“We need to answer questions on why it was such a complete failure and what were the factors that influenced the Trump administration and OSHA to basically do nothing while workers were suffering, so it will never happen again,” Lauritsen said.

Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson, said in a statement that the health and safety of workers is the company’s top priority and that they’ve implemented virus testing and added a chief medical officer to help respond to health guidelines in the wake of the pandemic.

Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s chief administrative officer, said in a statement that the company has taken “extraordinary measures” to protect employees that exceeded governmental guidelines and that it looks forward to correcting “inaccuracies” about the virus spread at meat plants.

JBS has invested in safety measures and facility modifications and welcomes the opportunity to share “our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce,” according to a statement from the company.

Hot Spots

The spreading virus made meat plants among the early hot spots in the U.S. pandemic, forcing facilities to shut temporarily.

Meat companies spent hundreds of millions to install work-station dividers, sanitizer stations, temperature scanners and to add medical personnel. “Comprehensive protections instituted since the spring” cost more than $1.5 billion, according to Sarah Little, a spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute.

Public health reviews have suggested the outbreaks in meatpacking plants seeded the subsequent spread in the surrounding communities, with one study by researchers at University of Chicago and Columbia University tying as many as 1 in 12 cases of Covid in the early stage of the pandemic to meat-processing facilities

The low OSHA penalties have drawn criticism from Democrats, including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Lawmakers have pointed to the meatpacking industry as an example of how companies have failed to protect poorly paid front-line employees.

OSHA has defended the size of the fines. In reference to a $13,494 fine against Smithfield Foods -- after 1,300 workers at the meat-packer’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant tested positive for the virus, 43 were hospitalized and four died between March 22 and June 16 -- OSHA said it was the maximum penalty allowed by law.

Clyburn set a Feb. 15 deadline for OSHA staff to brief lawmakers and for the companies respond with the requested data.

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