The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More than 200 meat plant workers in the U.S. have died of covid-19. Federal regulators just issued two modest fines.

The JBS meatpacking facility in Greeley, Colo., where 290 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and seven have died.
The JBS meatpacking facility in Greeley, Colo., where 290 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and seven have died. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)

Federal regulators knew about serious safety problems in dozens of the nation’s meat plants that became deadly coronavirus hot spots this spring but took six months to take action, recently citing two plants and finally requiring changes to protect workers.

The financial penalties for a Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota and a JBS plant in Colorado issued last week total about $29,000 — an amount critics said was so small that it would fail to serve as an incentive for the nation’s meatpackers to take social distancing and other measures to protect their employees.

Meat plant workers, union leaders and worker safety groups are also outraged that the two plants, with some of the most severe outbreaks in the nation, were only cited for a total of three safety violations and that hundreds of other meat plants have faced no fines. The companies criticized federal regulators for taking so long to give them guidance on how to keep workers safe.

At least 42,534 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in 494 meat plants, and at least 203 meatpacking workers have died since March, according to an analysis by the Food Environmental Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.

At the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., 1,294 have tested positive for the coronavirus and four have died. At the JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colo., 290 have tested positive and six have died.

Smithfield last year had revenue of nearly $14 billion. JBS — the largest meatpacker in the world — had $51.7 billion in revenue. Both companies, which operate internationally, said that the citations are “without merit,” that they will contest them and that they have already made safety improvements.

As they rushed to maintain U.S. meat supply, big processors saw plants become covid-19 hot spots

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the plants failed to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees in that employees were working in close proximity to each other and were exposed to” the coronavirus.

The citations also said the companies “did not develop or implement timely and effective measures to mitigate exposures.”

In addition to improving distancing between employees, OSHA ordered the companies to erect barriers between the workers when that isn’t possible. With Smithfield, OSHA said the plant needed to adjust processing line speeds “to enable employees to stand farther apart.”

The companies, worker safety groups and meat plant workers criticized OSHA for how long it took the agency to complete investigations of the plants.

“Where were they when people were getting sick and were hospitalized? When people were dying?” said Debbie Berkowitz, a worker-safety expert with the nonprofit National Employment Law Project. “Just think about how many lives could have been saved and how many people may not have gotten sick.”

Mark Lauritsen, vice president and director of food processing, packing and manufacturing with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), said he believes the sudden issuance of citations, months after the plants were spiking with coronavirus cases, is motivated by the upcoming election.

“They checked out and turned a blind eye to this for months. The Trump administration made these decisions to not step in and help workers,” Lauritsen said. “Now they are trying to look like they are doing their job so they can cover themselves politically. People in this country remember the horror of what happened to these workers.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Of the nearly 10,000 virus-related requests OSHA received to investigate workplaces in all industries since early March, Smithfield and JBS are the only ones that have so far resulted in a citation and fine. Unrelated to the complaints, OSHA has issued six other virus-related citations and fines for industries other than the meat industry, which resulted from routine reports the agency received from hospitals and employers about workers being hospitalized or fatally injured, records show.

The massive coronavirus outbreaks at meat plants — and the lack of masks and social distancing that fueled the virus’s spread — has been widely reported by media since March and April.

Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield, criticized OSHA, saying the agency was slow to issue guidance to meatpackers, adding, “Despite this fact, we figured it out on our own.”

She also said the company “simultaneously and repeatedly urged OSHA to commit the time and resources to visit our operations in March and April. They did not do so.”

JBS also was critical of OSHA’s response to the pandemic, saying the agency did not provide guidance until late April on ways to remedy safety problems that would have prevented the spread of the coronavirus in plants.

“The OSHA citation . . . attempts to impose a standard that did not exist in March as we fought the pandemic with no guidance,” JBS said in a statement. “Every proposed abatement in the citation was implemented months ago in Greeley. These abatements would have been informative in February. Today, they don’t even meet our internal standards.”

The North American Meat Institute, a trade association, also criticized the “inconsistent and sometimes tardy government advice” in a statement and said the industry quickly took steps to protect workers when the virus hit in March. It also said confirmed coronavirus cases among plant workers have dropped significantly in recent months because of measures taken in the plants.

In response to the criticism, OSHA said that its investigative process is “exhaustive” and that it met legal mandates because it has “a six month statute of limitations to complete any investigation and issue a citation.” In response to Smithfield’s statement, OSHA also said, “The risks and precautions needed were well-known at the time and Smithfield did not address them in a timely manner.”

Kim Cordova, president of the UFCW Local 7, which represents the JBS employees, said she worries the small fines may actually make conditions worse for plant workers.

“These tiny fines are nothing to [meat plant owners]. They give an incentive to make these workers work faster and harder in the most unsafe working conditions imaginable,” said Cordova, referencing JBS’s $15,615 fine.

Sandra Sibert, a union representative at the Smithfield plant who debones hams on the early-morning shift, said she sent emails in mid-March to the White House and Smithfield’s human resources department telling them about the grave concerns she had: Thousands of employees were working without masks, workers were packed like “tuna in a can” on processing lines, and several areas within the plant had no hand sanitizer.

“They did not sit down with me,” said Sibert, who tested positive for the coronavirus in early April and took several weeks to recover. “They only emailed or [left a] message saying they appreciated my concerns.”

When OSHA inspectors arrived at the plant April 20, she was hopeful, but she, too, is disappointed with the outcome. Like Cordova, she worries the OSHA fine is not enough to prompt the company to create more social distancing in the plant, which, records show, Smithfield has fought.

The $13,494 fine, Sibert said, was too low. “It isn’t going to scare them,” she said. “They make that kind of money in a half-hour — less.”

By contrast, California, which runs its own OSHA program, fined a meat plant about $220,000 last week for similar violations.

OSHA defended itself by saying it issued the maximum fine allowed under the law — $13,494 — for citations for a serious violation. Each company received that, and JBS also received a $2,121 fine for an “other-than-serious” violation.

However, critics said their problem was not with the dollar amount for a single violation; their frustration is with the agency’s citation of only one serious violation for each plant. OSHA declined further comment on the fine amounts.

Both companies have fought strict enforcement measures on social distancing and state-ordered quarantines they say drove up absentee rates among workers.

In mid-March, Smithfield Foods’s chief executive, Kenneth Sullivan, sent a letter to Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) saying he had “grave concerns” that the state’s stay-at-home orders were causing “hysteria.”

“We are increasingly at a very high risk that food production employees and others in critical supply chain roles stop showing up for work,” Sullivan wrote in a letter obtained by the nonprofit journalism outlet ProPublica. “This is a direct result of the government continually reiterating the importance of social distancing, with minimal detail surrounding this guidance.”

He added: “Social distancing is a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops.”

In a June 30 letter to Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), Sullivan again pushed back on concerns the lawmakers raised regarding the company’s handling of the virus in their plants.

“Please understand, processing plants were no more designed to operate in a pandemic than hospitals were designed to produce pork,” Sullivan wrote. “In other words, for better or worse, our plants are what they are. Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? Okay. Where?”

JBS flexed its muscle to reopen its doors before it had implemented many of the safety measures Weld County health officials mandated for the Greeley plant in April, when they ordered the plant to close because of coronavirus outbreaks, records show.

He fled Congo to work in a U.S. meat plant. Then he — and hundreds of his co-workers — got the coronavirus.

Company executives successfully enlisted Vice President Pence and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield to help keep the plant running. On April 10, when the closure order was sent for the plant, Pence and President Trump both mentioned the Greeley plant at the day’s White House coronavirus briefing, promising testing resources to the plant.

An hour later, JBS USA chief executive Andre Nogueira publicly thanked Pence in a news release. Pence spokesman Devin M. O’Malley said other meat plants also were helped and that the vice president’s “efforts were instrumental in ensuring that Americans did not experience food shortages during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

The day after the county’s closure order, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, director of Colorado’s health agency, wrote in an email to then-Weld County health director Mark Wallace, saying she had received a call from Redfield regarding the Greeley plant.

“JBS was in touch with the VP who had Director Redfield call me,” she wrote in the April 11 email. Redfield wanted the local and state health authorities to send “asymptomatic people back to work even if we suspect exposure but they have no symptoms,” Ryan wrote. She said she was okay with that if Wallace was.

A state health department employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution from the federal government, said they complied with Redfield’s request out of fear that the state would be cut off from aid it needed from CDC to manage the pandemic.

The employee confirmed there was “heavy involvement from high levels within the federal government.”