WASHINGTON – Representative James Clyburn (D-SC) the chairman of the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, announced on Feb. 1 that the panel will be investigating coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks at meatpacking plants nationwide.
Clyburn sent letters to the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA), Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc. and JBS USA announcing the subcommittee’s intention to examine the agency and the companies’ practices during the initial outbreaks in the spring of 2020.
“Public reports indicate that under the Trump administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” Clyburn wrote in his letter to OSHA. “It is imperative that the previous administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.”
The panel asked for all three major meatpackers and OSHA for inspection records, complaints and other documents related to COVID-19 procedures at plants.
“Public reports indicate that 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,” Clyburn wrote in his letter to the meatpacking companies. “These actions appear to have resulted in thousands of meatpacking workers getting infected with the virus and hundreds dying. Outbreaks at meatpacking plants have also spread to surrounding communities, killing many more Americans.”
According to the Food Environmental Reporting Network (FERN), more than 54,000 front-line workers across 569 US meat plants tested positive for COVID-19 since March. Approximately 270 of those workers died, FERN reported.
Clyburn’s news release stated that during the Trump administration, OSHA issued eight citations to meatpacking companies. President Trump declared an executive order on April 28, 2020, citing the Defense Production Act, which kept meat processing plants open to stop possible shortages of processed meat.
Tyson responded to the letter it received from the subcommittee.
“Our top priority will always be the health and safety of our people, and we look forward to working with the congressional committee to share what we’ve done and continue to do to protect our team members from the coronavirus,” Tyson said. “We’ve invested more than half a billion dollars during the pandemic to transform our US facilities with protective measures, from walk-through temperature scanners and workstation dividers to social distance monitors and additional team member pay and benefits.
“In addition, we’ve added a chief medical officer to help us safeguard and improve the health of our workforce. We’re also using random testing as a tool to find the virus, testing thousands of workers a week, both symptomatic and asymptomatic. This strategy has enabled us to move from defense to offense in our efforts to fight the virus.”
JBS also responded to the congressional investigation.
“We welcome the opportunity to provide members of the Select Subcommittee with information regarding our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce,” JBS said. “Since the onset of the pandemic, JBS USA has invested more than $200 million in health and safety interventions, more than $160 million in bonuses and permanent increased pay, and donated more than $50 million to support our local communities.”
The company also said that it implemented hundreds of safety measures like offering unlimited PPE, constructing permanent physical barriers, establishing physical distancing protocols, and installing hospital-grade ventilation systems in all of its facilities.
“JBS USA provides immediate testing to all symptomatic team members and close contacts, and has conducted more than 45,000 surveillance tests of asymptomatic team members to date,” the company said.
JBS noted that it voluntarily is removing vulnerable population groups with full pay and benefits covering 100% of all COVID-19 related health expenses for workers and family members enrolled in the company health plan. JBS first reported this practice in early December 2020 following more cases at its Greeley, Colo., beef plant.
Last week, JBS USA and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. officials announced the companies would offer workers a $100 bonus as an incentive to receiving the vaccine.
Finally, Smithfield also provide a comment on the subcommittes’s investigation on its website.
“From early in the pandemic, we have taken extraordinary measures to protect our team members from the virus and we have met or exceeded the prevailing federal, state and local health and safety guidance, including with personal protective equipment,” Smithfield said. “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.”
The meat producer went on to say that it has invested more than $700 million to protect employees and listed measures it has taken during the pandemic including:
- On-site COVID-19 pre-screening and testing facilities;
- Air purification systems;
- Extensive physical barriers at workstations;
- Employee protective equipment, such as shields and masks;
- Significant facility modifications and expansion to ensure distancing in key areas, such as break and lunch rooms;
- Thousands of sanitation stations and prominent banners and signage that outline and encourage safe practices in multiple languages;
- Adding new employees whose sole job is to ensure distancing and sanitation practices are implemented correctly.
Smithfield added that it implemented a generous leave program and established policies and protocols to ensure employees were not diagnosed with COVID-19 and do not have symptoms before coming to work. The company also said its added on-site testing and screening and have provided generous policies and paid leave to ensure employees stay at home when necessary.