Meatpacking plants have been the sites of some of the worst outbreaks—and the worst abuses—of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Rep. Jim Clyburn, chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, is planning to investigate. Clyburn put the meatpacking industry and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on notice Monday.
Clyburn charged that OSHA failed “to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws.” With 482 outbreaks in the meat industry, more than 45,000 workers having gotten sick, and 482 deaths, OSHA has nonetheless issued just eight citations and $80,000 in fines for COVID-19 issues in the industry.
That’s despite workers alleging that managers at one plant had a betting pool on how many employees would get sick while they pressured workers to stay on the job no matter what. Despite the industry coming under such scrutiny in public that Tyson Foods took out a full-page ad defending itself. But the public scrutiny didn’t mean government scrutiny—the Trump administration and state and local governments repeatedly gave meatpacking companies a pass.
At meatpacking giant JBS, 3,084 workers have had COVID-19, and 18 have died, Clyburn noted, and an OSHA investigation found serious safety lapses. Meanwhile, the company’s profits have skyrocketed, growing 778% in the third quarter of 2020. At Smithfield, 3,553 workers contracted COVID-19 and eight died. In just one outbreak, 1,300 people were infected, 43 were hospitalized, and four died. Clyburn is requesting “all documents” relating to worker complaints or concerns, as well as documents relating to federal or state safety investigations.
“The meat and poultry industry became a vector for the spread of COVID 19 because it did not implement basic safety precautions. Stunningly, when workers filed complaints about unsafe conditions in the pandemic, OSHA failed to conduct inspections,” Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff who is now director of the National Employment Law Project’s worker health and safety program, said. “This investigation is critical to find out why, among all the big industries, the meat industry was able to get a pass at protecting workers in this pandemic.”
Clyburn’s warning shot to OSHA—obviously with a very different leadership than presided over the meatpacking industry’s coronavirus response to this point—comes as the agency considers whether to put emergency standards in place to require employers to take COVID-19 precautions. That decision will be made on March 15.