CORONAVIRUS

Democrats investigate Tyson, Smithfield over COVID-19 outbreaks

OSHA questioned about enforcing safety rules

Protesters wave to workers leaving the Tyson's Fresh Meat plant in Waterloo in April. (Brandon Pollock/Waterloo-Cedar Fa
Protesters wave to workers leaving the Tyson’s Fresh Meat plant in Waterloo in April. (Brandon Pollock/Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)

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.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, sent letters Monday to Tyson Foods — which has facilities in Waterloo — Smithfield Foods and JBS USA requesting information on the number of sick employees, facility closures, safety measures and leave policies for when workers tested positive.

Nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 270 have died, Clyburn said in the letter.

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.

Clyburn also asked OSHA to explain the relative lack of citations and penalties issued against meatpacking plants under the Trump administration even though 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.

Tyson, Smithfield, JBS and OSHA did not immediately respond to requests to comment.

The spreading virus made meat plants one of the early hot spots in the U.S. pandemic, forcing facilities to shut down temporarily. Meat companies spent hundreds of millions to install workstation dividers, sanitizer stations, temperature scanners and to add medical personnel.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The North American Meat Institute said the industry has spent more than $1.5 billion on “comprehensive protections instituted since the spring.”

The low penalties have drawn criticism from Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Lawmakers have pointed to the meatpacking industry, an early coronavirus epicenter, 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 meatpacker’s Sioux Falls, S.D., 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.

Tyson Foods fired seven managers at its Waterloo pork plant after an independent investigation confirmed allegations they had bet on how many workers would test positive for coronavirus, the company said in December and as reported by the Associated Press.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.