By Greg Barnes
A congressional subcommittee is investigating multiple coronavirus outbreaks at meat and poultry processing plants in North Carolina and throughout the country.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis announced Feb. 1 that it is seeking internal documents from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and three of the nation’s largest meatpackers — Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and JBS USA. All three companies have plants in North Carolina.
In letters to OSHA and the three meatpackers, the subcommittee’s chairman, James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), requested documents related to the coronavirus outbreaks, including worker complaints, inspections and the number of infections and deaths at individual plants. The documents are due to the subcommittee by Feb. 15.
Clyburn wrote that public reports indicate the 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.”
Clyburn also wrote that inaction by the meatpackers appears to have resulted in thousands of workers getting infected with the coronavirus and hundreds of them dying as a result. He said the outbreaks at the plants spread the coronavirus to surrounding communities, infecting and killing many more people.
Clyburn blasted OSHA, as well, saying it “failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths. It is imperative that the previous (Trump) Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.”
Smithfield Foods defended its response to the pandemic, saying the company has met or exceeded federal, state and local health and safety guidance.
In a statement, Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s chief administrative officer, said the company has invested more than $700 million in measures to protect employees during the pandemic.
“It is unfortunate that there are inaccuracies and misinformation in the media on this issue and we look forward to providing the Subcommittee with correct information,” Lombardo said in the statement.
JBS USA released a similar statement, saying it, too, has spent millions to protect workers and welcomes the opportunity to present information to the subcommittee. Tyson Foods could not be reached.
Coronavirus raced through plants
In his letters, Clyburn wrote that nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the country have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 270 had died as of July 21.
In his letter to Smithfield Foods, Clyburn noted that a single case of the coronavirus spread to 929 employees at a South Dakota plant in just five weeks.
Citing an article in the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Clyburn wrote that meatpacking plants were associated with between 236,000 and 310,000 coronavirus cases and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths, indicating that the plants were responsible for transmitting the virus to people in nearby communities.
The Tyson Foods, JBS and Smithfield Foods plants in North Carolina did not escape widespread coronavirus outbreaks.
In late April, the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse, a Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, almost shut down because of the pandemic.
In May, 570 of the more than 2,200 workers at Tyson’s poultry plant in Wilkesboro tested positive for the coronavirus.
Read the letter sent from Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to Smithfield Foods asking for information about COVID-19 outbreaks in the company’s plants.
At the height of the pandemic last spring, workers at meat and poultry plants in North Carolina reached out to NC Health News and other media outlets to complain about unsafe working conditions.
An employee of the Smithfield Foods plant in Bladen County said in April that she hadn’t returned to work for almost a week because she didn’t think the plant had done enough to keep workers safe.
“I just want them to shut down for a while to make it better for everybody else and their families,” the worker said, declining to be named out of fear that she could lose her job.
A worker at a Mountaire chicken-processing plant in Siler City expressed similar fears in April.
“When this pandemic started, Mountaire was doing nothing,” that worker told NC Health News. “They just started giving employees face masks/shields & putting up glass between people about two weeks ago. The distance between people on the lines is literally elbow to elbow. The risk of the virus spreading in the company is extremely high because of this.
“It’s scary. I’m putting my life at risk going to work and Mountaire is only worried about profit from their chicken.”
The majority of workers at the Mountaire Farms plant are Black or had Latin American roots. In May, the ZIP code that includes the plant had the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state.
At that time, a third of all COVID-19 patients at UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill were transferred there from Chatham Hospital in Siler City. An internal UNC Hospitals report from back then shows 41 percent of all patients treated for COVID-19 at UNC Hospitals were Latino.
Smithfield fines less than $11 per infected worker
In his letter to OSHA, Clyburn wrote that the agency’s mission is to ensure safe and healthy working conditions by setting and enforcing standards.
“Yet under the previous Administration, OSHA did not set a single new standard or regulation requiring employers to protect meatpacking workers from the coronavirus—and did not meaningfully enforce existing standards,” Clyburn wrote.
Clyburn noted that OSHA issued more than $3.9 million in penalties related to the coronavirus but only eight citations and $80,000 in penalties to meatpacking companies.
Clyburn wrote that on Sept. 8, OSHA cited Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls “for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus.” OSHA concluded that at least 1,294 Smithfield workers there contracted the coronavirus, and four employees died.
The agency cited Smithfield for a single violation and fined the company $13,494, which amounts to less than $11 per infected employee. Smithfield’s chief executive officer earned $14 million last year, Clyburn wrote.
“Although OSHA’s citation identified four distinct actions Smithfield failed to take to protect its workers, the agency lumped them together as a single violation and declined to classify the conduct as ‘willful’ — decisions that reduced a potential $2.7 million penalty down to just a few thousand dollars,” Clyburn wrote.
Clyburn also said coronavirus testing at the meatpacking plants has been inadequate.
“Many plants reportedly rejected testing offered by state authorities without arranging for alternative testing,” Clyburn wrote to OSHA. “Others reportedly told employees they needed to get tested ‘on their own.’ “
Tyson managers place bets
In his letter to Tyson Foods, Clyburn noted that more Tyson workers have been infected and killed by the coronavirus than at any other meatpacking company — 12,413 infections and 39 deaths.
Clyburn wrote that Tyson “does not appear to have taken basic precautions to prevent these outbreaks,” saying the company “did not carry out facility-wide testing at many facilities.”
Clyburn also wrote that some of the meatpacking companies “have shown a callous disregard for the health of their workers.”
At a Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, he said, managers ordered workers to remain on the job and then “organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19.”
Tyson fired seven of the managers but has not released a report on an independent investigation it had commissioned.
N.C. regulators remain mum
In his letter to Smithfield Foods, Clyburn wrote that 3,554 of its meatpacking employees have been infected with the coronavirus, and eight have died. Citing the outbreak at the South Dakota plant, Clyburn said OSHA found that Smithfield failed to provide a workplace that was “free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”
It’s impossible to know how many of those infections and deaths happened at individual Smithfield Foods plants in North Carolina. State Department of Health and Human Services officials won’t say, despite repeated requests from NC Health News and other media outlets.
Early in the pandemic, NC Health News requested the information under the state’s open records laws. The nonprofit news publication believed — and still does — that workers are entitled to the information so they can learn about infections in their workplace and take precautions.
State officials denied the request. In May, Mark Benton, deputy secretary of Public Health for DHHS, said revealing the outbreaks at individual plants could jeopardize the department’s working relationship with the private meatpacking companies, as well as the privacy rights of its workers. The department does reveal outbreaks at private nursing homes in the state.
“We are grappling with that,” Benton said in an interview with NC Health News in May. “These are not long-term care settings. These are not residential care settings. The workers don’t reside in the facilities 24/7 and so, I assure you, we are looking at this from a multitude of angles.
“First and foremost, what is in the best interest of the public health. What’s also in the best interest of those that are diagnosed and also what’s in the best interest of ensuring that, in the long run, we have been able to assemble a group of people, a coalition, a partnership that is going to sort of drive us toward a successful resolution to this pandemic.”
As founder and executive director of The Hispanic Liaison in Chatham County, Ilana Dubester has fought for workers rights at the Mountaire Farms plant in Siler City and other meat and poultry-processing facilities throughout the state.
Dubester acknowledges that conditions have improved at Mountaire since the pandemic began, but she said much more could be done. She said Mountaire workers often gather in large groups, and the company still doesn’t monitor whether they are wearing masks.
“There are hundreds of workers in the room together, and not everybody’s wearing a mask,” she said.
Dubester said contract workers still get paid less and receive fewer benefits than regular employees, and they can still lose their jobs at will.
In an emailed statement, Mountaire spokeswoman Catherine M. Bassett countered that the company “has been aggressively fighting this virus with every tool in our arsenal.”
In October, Dubester’s organization and five others in North Carolina filed a petition for rulemaking with the North Carolina Department of Labor. The petition asked the department to adopt an emergency rule that would protect workers during the pandemic by putting an end to dangerous workplace conditions.
The department rejected the petition in December, saying in part that it believes collaboration among state agencies and meatpacking companies is more effective than “aggressive regulatory actions” specific to COVID-19.
The group of safety advocates has since filed civil action against the labor department in a Wake County court. A hearing is pending.
North Carolina now counts 4,455 cases of the coronavirus and 22 deaths at meat and poultry processing plants in the state.