A Congressional subcommittee is investigating the high level of meatpacking plant COVID-19 infections in the United States and the failure to enforce federal worker safety laws.
Meatpacking Plant COVID-19 Infections Rampant
On Feb. 1, 2020, Rep. James Clyburn, chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, announced the probe into the nation’s widespread meatpacking plant COVID-19 infections. Nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking facilities across the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 270 of them have died so far.
Clyburn sent letters requesting documents from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and three of the nation’s largest meatpacking companies – Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA. The documents would pertain to coronavirus-related illnesses and deaths and the enforcement of worker protections. The companies must turn over their documents and OSHA must provide a staff briefing by no later than Feb. 15.
“Public reports indicate that under the Trump Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health 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 wrote in his letter to OSHA. “It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.”
OSHA Did Little to Regulate Offenders
Despite the significant number of COVID-19 infections nationwide, Clyburn insists that OSHA did little to regulate offenders in the meatpacking industry during Trump’s tenure, whether by issuing enforceable rules, responding promptly to complaints, or imposing adequate fines on companies whose unsafe practices resulted in worker fatalities.
Under the Trump administration, OSHA issued only eight citations and less than $80,000.00 in penalties for coronavirus-related violations in the meatpacking sector. Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS alone have had a combined total of 41 “major outbreaks” at meatpacking plants across twenty states, including some facilities with multiple outbreaks.
“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,” wrote Clyburn, adding that meatpacking plant COVID-19 infections also impact the surrounding community.
Clyburn cited the case of a Smithfield plant in South Dakota, where 1,294 employees contracted COVID-19 and four died. OSHA fined the company only $13,494.00, less than $11.00 per infected worker. In another instance, a JBS plant in Colorado had 290 confirmed coronavirus cases and six employee deaths, resulting in a total fine of $15,615.00 and two violations issued.
“A fine this small imposed on JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker with $51.7 billion in annual revenue, is effectively meaningless,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn’s committee is not the only government entity to find OSHA’s response to the coronavirus pandemic lacking. On Jan. 28, the Government Accountability Office issued a report detailing “gaps in OSHA’s oversight and tracking of its adapted enforcement methods” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deborah Berkowitz, a former OSHA official, agrees with their assessment, claiming that the agency failed to protect workers and provide standardized safety requirements for businesses nationwide. Berkowitz said that, by her count, OSHA should have conducted 10,000 to 20,000 safety inspections since March 2020; instead, that number was closer to a few hundred.
Workers’ Compensation Lawyers for COVID-19 Victims
Those who work in certain industries may be especially vulnerable during the pandemic, as can be seen with the staggering number of meatpacking plant COVID-19 infections and deaths across the country. But if you contract the coronavirus while on the job in Illinois, you might be eligible to receive benefits under the state’s workers’ compensation system. To learn more about your legal options, consult with the Chicago workers’ compensation attorneys at GWC Injury Lawyers LLC.
With over $2 billion recovered in verdicts and settlements, GWC is one of the leading Workers’ Compensation and Personal Injury law firms in Illinois. For more than four decades, we have been fighting for injured people working in virtually every profession. Our workers’ compensation lawyers have the experience, the determination, the resources, and the proven record of success you need to help get you and your family the justice you deserve.
Contact GWC today to schedule a free, no-obligation case evaluation with one of our dedicated attorneys. You can call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with a representative at any time.