The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday proposed that Smithfield Foods pay a $13,494 fine for failing to protect its employees at a meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where nearly 1,300 workers contracted COVID-19 and four died.
The penalty, the maximum allowed by law, comes after the agency's Occupational Safety and Health Administration probed the pork processing plant, whichdue to an outbreak of the coronavirus among employees. OSHA cited Smithfield for not doing enough ahead of the first known infections at the plant March 23, such as spacing out workers or providing face coverings and physical barriers.
The agency's guidance details steps employers can take to protect workers during the pandemic, which has killed more than 191,000 Americans. Those include social distancing, physical barriers, face shields and face coverings, along with safety warnings communicated in a language that a company's workers understand.
"Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers' safety and health," OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley stated in a news release. "Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite."
Smithfield challenging fine
Smithfield dismissed OSHA's findings as without merit and said it would contest them.
"We took extraordinary measures on our own initiative to keep our employees as healthy and safe as possible so that we could fulfill our obligation to the American people to maintain the food supply," Keira Lombardo, Smithfield's executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, stated in an email. "We incurred incremental expenses related to COVID-19 totaling $350 million during the second quarter alone. Ironically, OSHA then used what we had done as a model for its April 26 guidance."
According to Smithfield, the Sioux Falls community experienced an early spike in COVID-19 cases, which affected its plant. The company's response included urging OSHA to visit its operations in March and April — appeals that were ignored, Lombardo said.
"OSHA conducted its investigation and issued its citation in accordance with well-established procedures and legal standards. The risks and precautions needed were well-known at the time and Smithfield did not address them in a timely manner," the agency replied in an email to CBS MoneyWatch.
Union: No "real consequences" for deaths
Both OSHA and Smithfield were condemned by the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 1.3 million meatpacking and other essential workers, including those at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls.
"Smithfield is a multi-billion-dollar corporation that failed to protect its workers, with multiple deaths and more than a thousand infections on their watch. This response by OSHA confirms that the company will not face any real consequences," Marc Perrone, the union's international president, said in an email.
Employees at the plant labored elbow-to-elbow in producing almost 5% of the nation's pork. The UFCW has said it tried to negotiate for more coronavirus protections leading up to the spring outbreak.
Large outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the nation followed. The United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest union representing meatpacking employees, has counted 122 meatpacking worker deaths.
Ahead of OSHA's disclosure that four Smithfield workers had died of COVID-19, local media had only reported two Smithfield worker deaths from the virus.
OSHA began investigating Smithfield's Sioux Falls plant on April 20, after a team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toured the facility to advise on how meatpacking facilities should operate during the pandemic.
OSHA subpoenaed South Dakota health officials in June, requiring them to turn over any test results, correspondence with Smithfield or photos of the plant. The following month, Smithfield asked the U.S. District Court of South Dakota to quash the subpoena. The company's legal move was later dismissed by the court after Smithfield and OSHA reached agreement on the issues involved.
A study released last month by the CDC found that 929 employees — a quarter of the plant's workers — had been infected, along with 210 close contacts. The prior tally reported by the state had been 853 employees.
Meatpacking companies have been aggressively defending themselves, touting their role in feeding the country and warning of meat shortages should processing plants have to close. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April proclaiming meatpacking plants as critical infrastructure, and they've largely stayed open since.
U.S. slaughterhouses have more than recovered from the economic slowdown, with commercial red meat and pork production this year surpassing 2019, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
BJ Motley, the president of the union for Smithfield workers in Sioux Falls, told the Associated Press that Smithfield has implemented most of the measures recommended by the CDC, but workers still gather in close quarters in the plant.
But with a rising demand for meat and a shortage of employees after the outbreak, Motley said, "They are pressing their workers a lot harder now."
–– The Associated Press contributed to this report.