U.S. House select subcommittee to investigate OSHA enforcement at meatpacking plants, including JBS

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DENVER – The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Monday announced an investigation into COVID-19 cases and deaths at meatpacking companies and plants across the country, including JBS, to see whether or not the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) properly enforced worker safety laws.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the chair of the subcommittee, sent letters to OSHA and the top officials for Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA, whose Greeley meatpacking plant saw hundreds of COVID-19 cases and at least seven deaths last year during outbreaks in the spring and fall.

“[I]n the last year, OSHA failed to issue enforceable rules, respond in a timely manner to complaints, and issue meaningful fines when a company’s unsafe practices led to the deaths of employees,” Clyburn wrote in his letter to OSHA. “As a result, I am concerned that under the Trump Administration, OSHA did not fulfill its mission to protect vulnerable meatpacking workers during the pandemic.”

Colorado’s COVID-19 outbreak dashboard shows there were nearly 300 cases involving JBS staff in outbreaks at the meatpacking plant and workspaces between April and October and seven deaths.

The plant was closed for two weeks during an outbreak, and Denver7 investigations uncovered more allegations about JBS officials’ responses to the outbreaks at their facilities this summer.

The dashboard also shows an additional 156 cases and zero deaths in outbreaks that began mid-October. Clyburn’s letter says that in total, 3,084 JBS employees have been infected and 18 have died at the company’s plants across the U.S., which also includes facilities in Nebraska, Texas, Wisconsin, Utah and Minnesota.

After several JBS employees filed complaints with OSHA in March and an inspection in April, OSHA issued a “serious” citation in September and levied a $15,615 fine for the company, saying that the company “fail[ed] to protect employees from exposure to the virus” and failed “to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm.”

But families of employees, along with employees themselves and the union for the meatpacking workers, called the fine a slap in the face and protested outside of the plant. The outbreaks that began in October and November came after the OSHA fines.

The House select subcommittee said despite the loss of more than 550 meatpacking plant workers across the U.S., OSHA issued only eight citations and less than $80,000 in penalties for violations at the various meatpacking plants. In the third quarter of 2020, JBS net profits were $547.9 million, which the select subcommittee said amounted to a 778% year-over-year increase.

“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 JBS and the other 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.”

His letter asks JBS and the other companies to prove a host of documents to the committee by Feb. 15.

Among the documentation requested by the committee are information on complaints and concerns submitted by employees about COVID-19; a description of how the company tracks said complaints; all federal or state inspection documentation; numbers of employees who were sickened by or killed by COVID-19; communications about benefits for workers; documentation regarding short-term disability payments to employees; a list of closures and the dates and reasons why a facility was closed; and documentation about meeting CDC guidance for meatpacking plants, among others.

JBS declined to answer questions from Denver7 Monday. In a statement, Cameron Bruett, a spokesperson for JBS, said the company welcomed the opportunity to work with the subcommittee’s investigation and outlined steps he said the company has taken to make the plants safer and provide testing and vaccination for its workers.

“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,” Bruett said, in part. “In addition to the hundreds of safety measures implemented in our facilities, we have voluntarily removed vulnerable population groups with full pay and benefits, covered 100% of all COVID-19 related health expenses for our team members and family members enrolled in our health plan, and offered a $100 incentive bonus for any U.S. team member willing to get vaccinated.”

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, the union that represents many JBS plant workers, said in a statement it also welcomed the investigation. Six of the Colorado JBS workers who died were members of UFCW Local 7.

“Local 7 calls on the House Select Subcommittee to take a thorough look at the JBS Greeley meat packing plant’s operations, and all of the plants throughout the country, and to hold OSHA accountable for allowing these workers to be systemically treated like disposable widgets,” UFCW Local 7 President Kim Cordova said in a statement.

“This was long overdue,” Cordova told Denver7 in a Monday interview. “There’s been a lot of failures around this whole pandemic and the virus and the employees. It shows a lack of response and workers paid the ultimate price.”

Cordova added that she did not believe the money spent by JBS is enough.“These big packers, they profited greatly off the pandemic while workers were sick inside these facilities and OSHA failed them,” Cordova said. “All the money they’ve put out is never going to resurrect those dead workers.”