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House Democrats investigate COVID-19 at U.S. meatpacking plants

By
Jean Lotus
Activists call attention to slaughterhouse workers who have contracted COVID-19 while on the job in Vernon, Calif., during a rally on December 11, 2020. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Activists call attention to slaughterhouse workers who have contracted COVID-19 while on the job in Vernon, Calif., during a rally on December 11, 2020. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 1 (UPI) -- U.S. House investigators are taking a look at how federal health and safety inspectors dealt with the COVID-19 crisis at meatpacking plants across the country and whether companies properly moved to protect worker health.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the chair of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, sent letters Monday to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and the top officials for Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA, three large meat companies which have had a combined total of at least 41 major outbreaks in meatpacking facilities in 20 states, including multiple outbreaks in the same plants, the committee said.

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Nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 270 have died, according to reports cited by the committee.

"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 to OSHA.

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OSHA issued only eight citations to meat packing plants and fined companies less than $80,000, which Clyburn called "a paltry amount that has failed to curb dangerous conditions faced by many workers."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified meatpacking plants as a source for "rapid transmission" of the coronavirus. More than two-thirds of employees at meatpacking plants are Black or Latino, and almost half of employees live in low-income families, the committee said Monday.

Clyburn said in letters to meat company owners 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." He added that companies "have shown a callous disregard for workers' health."

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This included an incident at a Tyson pork plant in Iowa where managers were fired after making bets on how many employees would be sickened with the virus.

Clyburn also said in letters to meat company owners that outbreaks at meatpacking plants have also spread to surrounding communities, citing a National Academy of Sciences study that meatpacking plants were associated with between 236,000 to 310,000 coronavirus cases and 4,300 to 5,200 coronavirus deaths as of July 21, 2020.

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President Donald Trump in April signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants running. Meat factory owners pushed back on local state health departments that tried to shut down plants.

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A June ProPublica investigation of thousands of state health department emails showed that meat factories fought local health departments who didn't have the authority to stop the production lines.

"Meat processing plants sit in this weird limbo where the USDA has some authority, but then the health department doesn't really regulate them," said Rachel Willard, the county health director in Wilkesboro, N.C. "So there's this weird gap of who really has the power and authority to make any decisions to shut the plant down."

Tyson Foods, where more than 12,000 workers have contracted the disease and 38 have died, said Monday that the company would work with the committee.

"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 said in a statement to KNWA

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In Greeley, Colo., where JBS, USA was fined $15,000 by OSHA in penalties after more than 500 workers contracted the virus in multiple outbreaks and seven died, UFCW Local 7 President Kim Cordova said OSHA should be held accountable for "allowing these workers to be systemically treated like disposable widgets. ...Both OSHA and the meatpacking companies should honor their general duty to provide safe working conditions for these essential heroes," Cordova added.

The parent company of Smithfield Foods reported $925 million in profit in the first half of 2020, the committee said. More than 3,500 Smithfield workers contracted the coronavirus and eight employees died. On Monday, Smithfield blamed the reports of deaths and infections at Smithfield plants on "inaccuracies and misinformation in the media" in a company statement.

The companies and OSHA are being asked to provide documentation to the committee by Feb. 15. Documents include tracking of employee complaints; state and federal inspection documentation; worker benefits and short term disability payments to sick workers; closure dates and reasons for closure and documentation about meeting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

"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," Clyburn said.

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