On Monday, Rep. Jim Clyburn, who is also the chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, revealed that his committee will conduct an investigation of the spread of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants across the country.
The said committee sent investigatory letters to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It also sent letters to food companies such as JBS USA, Smithfields Foods, as well as Tyson Food. The letters issued asked for documents, including ones that may help the committee know how the OSHA and the food companies handled the COVID-19 outbreaks within the plants, as well as the complaints that came along with it.
According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, there have been more than 45,000 workers who have gotten sick to date. This resulted in 240 deaths which came from 482 outbreaks. However, the real numbers can possibly be much higher. Some companies did not submit their reports and OSHA has not investigated deaths during Trump’s administration.
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Clyburn Issues Letter To OSHA
Clyburn sent a letter to OSHA, addressed to the deputy assistant secretary, Jim Frederick. In it, Cluburm criticizing OSHA for its failure of carrying out “its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws” in plants. This failure resulted in widespread infections and death.
Clyburn wrote that “It is imperative” that they should identify the Trump administration’s deficiencies in handling the pandemic. He also wants these shortcomings to be “rectified to save lives” even before vaccines become widely accessible to everyone in the country.
Additionally, Clyburn also wrote, urging OSHA to carry out specific actions. These include sending out “clear guidance” to companies. They also include enforcing emergency standards for workplace safety.
Last Friday, Frederick headed the rollout of OSHA’s new guidelines for workplace safety during the pandemic. According to agency officials, this is the first step that signals a change of direction that has been put forward by the new administration.
By March 15, OSHA is scheduled to consider if emergency standards are needed. This would legally require employers to enforce precautionary measures against the COVID-19 disease. With this, it is unknown if OSHA will enforce this measure through fines or penalties.
As per Clyburn’s letter, the agency has only issued eight citations related to COVID-19 in the industry. This only totals $80,000 in penalties so far.
Debbie Berkowitz, who is a former chief of staff and senior policy adviser from OSHA, sees the investigation of the subcommittee as “critically important.”
As per Berkowitz, the industry handling meat and poultry has become “a vector” for the spread of the coronavirus. This happened due to its failure to implement safety measures. Because of this, she deemed the investigation “critical” in order to find out reasons why, of all industries, the meat industry got “a pass at protecting workers” during the pandemic.
Clyburn’s Letter to Food Companies
On the other hand, the letters Clyburn sent to food companies requested robust documentation from the companies. This includes “all documents” that are connected to employee concerns, a description of how they tracked the said concerns, inspections done, and all the information they may have with regards to infections and deaths at their plants.
The letters, however, did not issue subpoenas. So, the food companies only have an option of voluntarily handing out the documents. Nevertheless, Clyburm’s office said that they expect the food companies to willfully comply.
Some parts of the letters presented instances in which the representative accused the companies of putting their employees in danger.
One such instance, as per Clyburn, involved 3,084 JBS employees becoming sick, which resulted in 18 deaths. Additionally, the representative noted that OSHA investigations found out that JBS did not manage to protect its employees from coronavirus exposure. It also mentioned that JBS failed to provide a working space that is free or safe from known hazards.
In connection to this, JBS released a statement, detailing that, with regards to health and safety innovations, it has invested more than $200 million. It also invested $160 million for employee bonuses and increased pay. It also gave out more than $50 million to local communities in donations.
The statement also added that the company placed physical barriers in workplaces. It says distancing protocols and protective equipment were also in place. The company also mentioned that it is adding “hospital-grade” ventilation systems in their work facilities.
On the other hand, Clyburn claimed that 3,554 workers from Smithfield have gotten the virus. Out of that number, eight have succumbed to the illness. The letter also said that, as per an OSHA investigation at a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an outbreak took place. It resulted in 1,300 employees becoming infected, with 4 dying.
Speaking for Smithfield, CAO Kiera Lombardo stated that the company took its responsibility seriously with regard to the health and safety of its workers. She mentioned that they did so while trying to continue providing food for the country. The CAO also said that Smithfield had invested more than $700 million in putting safety measures in place to protect their workers. These measures included screenings, testing equipment, sanitizing machines, barriers, and PPEs.
To Tyson Foods
Lastly, in Clyburn’s letter to Tyson Foods, he claimed that 12,413 employees were infected by the coronavirus. This resulted in the death of 39 people. Clyburn also claimed that the food company did not implement facility-wide testing in places with more than 50 COVID-19 cases.
To this, Tyson Foods spokesperson Gary Mickelson released a statement, saying that the company’s top priority is the health and safety of its employees. He also detailed that the company invested around $500,000 on protective measures, including scanners and monitors for temperature screening and social distancing. The investment also included acquiring physical barriers and securing employee pay and benefits.