The U.S. Department of Labor has fined meat giant Smithfield $13,494 for failing to properly protect its workers from COVID-19. The penalty, the maximum allowed by law, came after the agency’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) completed a thorough investigation.
“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” says Sheila Stanley, director of OSHA in Sioux Falls, S.D. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”
One group not happy with the decision was the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million workers in meatpacking plants and other essential businesses across North America. UFCW denounced the fine as being insufficient, especially since Smithfield Foods failed to protect meatpacking workers such as the 1,300 employees at its plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., who contracted coronavirus, which led to four deaths.
“How much is the health, safety, and life of an essential worker worth? Based on the actions of the Trump Administration, clearly not much,” Marc Perrone, UFCW’s president, said. “This so-called ‘fine’ is a slap on the wrist for Smithfield, and a slap in the face of the thousands of American meatpacking workers who have been putting their lives on the line to help feed America since the beginning of this pandemic.”
Smithfield, however, feels the penalty was without merit and is planning to contest the fine. Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, released a statement saying that the citation was issued under a “general duty clause” for conditions that existed in March 2020, about a month before OSHA issued its guidelines to the meatpacking industry on ways to deal with COVID-19.
Smithfield is not along in facing penalties. Meat processing giant JBS was fined $15,615 in response to six of its workers in Greeley, Col., dying from COVID-19, and for more than 300 of its workers contracting the virus.
Perrone noted that these slap-on-the-wrist fines will do nothing to help those already infected or prevent future worker deaths. “OSHA has been asleep at the switch throughout this pandemic and this is just the latest example of the agency failing to do their job and take responsibility for worker safety,” he said. “If we truly care about protecting workers and our nation’s food supply during this pandemic, the federal government must take action, beginning with an enforceable national safety standard, increased access to PPE and COVID-19 testing, and rigorous proactive inspections.”