September 22, 2020

Warren, Booker Press OSHA on Feckless Enforcement of Meatpacking Facilities with COVID-19 Outbreaks

OSHA's inaction tells giant agribusiness conglomerates that the agency will protect corporate profits before workers & the American public; Absent OSHA enforcement harms workers & communities of color; workers of color constituted 87% of COVID-19 cases among workers at meat processing facilities; Senators also question whether Smithfield made false claims to Congress and the public about conditions at its plants

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sent a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regarding the agency's delayed and feckless response to the dozens of reports of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreaks affecting thousands of workers in hundreds of meatpacking facilities across the country.

In the Spring of 2020, OSHA identified violations of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act at major meatpacking facilities, Smithfield Packaged Meats Corporation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and JBS Foods, Inc. in Greeley, Colorado. These two facilities were the sites of serious, deadly worksite and community outbreaks that sickened over 1,500 workers, killed 10, and put thousands more in their communities at risk. However, OSHA elected to issue the smallest possible fine for these companies' egregious behavior, which Senator Warren recently called out. 

The senators wrote: "(Y)our decision to issue one single citation for violations of the OSH Act's general duty clause was the absolute minimal enforcement action OSHA could have taken. OSHA has the authority to issue a serious violation for every area of the inspected facilities where social distancing was not being implemented. OSHA also has the authority to classify the violations as 'willful' for either 'intentional disregard of violations' or 'plain indifference,' increasing the maximum penalty tenfold."  The agency took none of these options, opting for a slap on the wrist for the meatpackers.

Public information suggests that Smithfield's violations met the OSHA criteria for "willful" violations. In a letter sent to Senators Warren and Booker in June 2020, Smithfield explicitly indicated that the company had considered -- and rejected -- fully implementing social distancing and slower line speeds, providing strong evidence that their violations were both willful and in intentional disregard of their duties to protect their workers. In addition, Smithfield was likely aware that their "Cut, Conversion, and Harvest department-groups, in which numerous employees tended to work <6 feet (2 meters) from one another on the production line, experienced the highest attack rates," according to the findings of a case study conducted at the Smithfield facility by the South Dakota Department of Health. The senators also noted that "there is ample precedent for larger fines," with examples of OSHA-issued fines to meatpacking companies ranging from $369,500 to $3.1 million. 

"Well-publicized action by OSHA could have had a beneficial impact on the rest of the food industry by clearly establishing that plants could implement improved workplace safety operations to protect their employees from COVID-19," Senators Warren and Booker wrote. "But you let these companies get away with barely a slap on the wrist -- letting Smithfield, JBS, and every other meatpacking facility know that OSHA will protect corporate profits, not workers and the American public."

OSHA's inaction disproportionately harms workers and communities of color. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that workers of color constituted 87% of COVID-19 cases among workers at meat processing facilities. OSHA's failure to act also compounds existing racial injustices -- Black and Latino individuals are nearly five times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 than white individuals, and are disproportionately dying from COVID-19.

The senators noted that the Department of Labor (DOL) wrote to Senate offices in April, stating that "there is a minimum level of workplace safety practice that is necessary to protect workers, but is not being followed by employers. this time, we see no additional benefit from an (Emergency Temporary Standard) in the current circumstances relating to COVID-19." The senators added, "There was ample evidence that employers were not protecting workers in the spring, and there is more evidence now."

Senators Warren and Booker requested a response from OSHA no later than October 6, 2020. 

Senator Warren has been leading the charge to protect workers and eliminate corporate profiteering during the COVID-19 crisis:

  • In June 2020, Senators Warren and Booker opened an investigation into meatpackers' manipulation of the COVID-19 crisis to raise prices and exploit workers. About a month later in July 2020, the senators released new information from their investigation, calling for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, which Senator Warren proposed along with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), including for DOL to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS).
  • Senators Warren and Booker joined Senate Democrats asking USDA for specific safety guarantees for workers at meat processing facilities. The senators also joined Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and other Senate Democrats requesting a revision of the President's Executive Order to ensure facilities meet safety guidelines before re-opening.
  • Senator Warren, along with Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.), and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), also requested that the DOL Inspector General (IG) audit OSHA's decreased investigation and enforcement activity during this pandemic, as well as their failure to promulgate an ETS. The DOL IG agreed to investigate lawmakers' concerns. 
  • Senator Warren joined a letter led by Senator Booker to retract USDA approval for meat processing facilities to increase line speed.