U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, announced Monday that the committee will investigate the spread of COVID-19 in the nation’s meatpacking plants.
In a first move, the committee issued investigatory letters to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and food companies JBS USA, Smithfields Foods, and Tyson Foods. Each letter requested a bevy of documents, including those that could shed light on how each entity responded to COVID-19 outbreaks and complaints within plants.
Since the start of the pandemic, USA TODAY in partnership with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has investigated the spread of the novel coronavirus in meatpacking plants. To date, more than 45,000 workers have fallen ill, with at least 240 deaths, stemming from 482 outbreaks, tracking from the Midwest Center shows. But the true toll could be much larger, as companies failed to report and OSHA failed to investigate some deaths under the Trump administration.
In a letter to OSHA, Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, criticized the agency for failing “to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws” at plants, resulting in infections and death.
“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,” Clyburn wrote.
Clyburn’s letter also “urged” OSHA to take specific actions, including issuing “clear guidance” to employers, enacting a temporary emergency standard for workplace safety, and enhancing enforcement efforts.
The letter was addressed to Jim Frederick, deputy assistant secretary of OSHA, a former assistant director of the United Steelworkers Union who was appointed by President Joe Biden on Jan. 21. Last Friday, Frederick led the release of new workplace safety guidelines for coronavirus that agency officials said marked the first step in a change of direction from the administration.
OSHA is next set to consider by March 15 the necessity of emergency standards, which would legally require employers to take precautions against COVID-19. Whether or not the agency increases enforcement through fines and penalties to the industry remains to be seen. According to Clyburn’s letter, OSHA has issued just eight coronavirus-related citations totaling $80,000 in penalties to the industry so far.
OSHA officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment Monday morning.
In separate letters to JBS, Tyson, and Smithfield, Clyburn requested that the companies provide robust documentation, including “all documents” relating to complaints or concerns submitted by employees, a description of how those complaints are tracked, any documents related to federal or state inspections, and all information regarding infections and deaths at its plants.
No subpoenas were issued with the letters, meaning the requests are voluntary. But Clyburn’s office stated the subcommittee expects willful compliance and will consider other measures if not met.
The letters also highlight specific instances in which Clyburn accused the companies of putting workers in harm’s way.
According to Clyburn, 3,084 JBS employees have been infected by the virus, leading to 18 deaths. Clyburn noted an OSHA investigation of the company’s Greeley, Colorado plant last spring determined that the company failed to “protect employees from exposure” and to provide a workplace safe from recognized hazards. Clyburn’s letter alleges the company’s net profits increased 778% to $574.9 million in the third quarter of 2020.
In a statement, JBS said that it invested more than $200 million in health and safety innovations, $160 million in worker bonuses and increased pay, and donated more than $50 million to local communities. The company said it has also implemented physical barriers in workplaces, distancing protocols, provides unlimited personal protective equipment, and is installing “hospital-grade” ventilation systems in all facilities.
“We welcome the opportunity to provide members of the (subcommittee) information regarding our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce,” the company said.
Clyburn alleged that 3,553 Smithfield employees contracted the coronavirus, eight of whom died. At a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Clyburn noted that OSHA found that an outbreak led to the infection of 1,300 employees, 43 hospitalizations, and 4 deaths. He stated the company made $925 million in profit in the first half of 2020.
Keira Lombardo, Chief Administrative Officer of Smithfield, said the company has “taken seriously our responsibility to protect the health and safety of our employees while continuing to provide food for our nation.” The company has invested “more than $700 million” in adding protections such as worker screening and testing facilities, air purification systems, physical barriers and PPE, she added.
“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 a letter to Tyson, Clyburn alleged that 12,413 workers tested positive for coronavirus, leading to 39 deaths. He alleged Tyson did not carry out facility-wide testing at “many facilities where 50 or more workers” were infected. Clyburn stated the company reported $2.15 billion in profits during fiscal year 2020.
In a statement, Tyson Foods spokesperson Gary Mickelson said that workers’ health and safety is the top priority and that the company has invested “more than half a billion” dollars on protective measures such as temperature scanners, social distance monitors, workstation dividers, and pay and benefits.
“We look forward to working with the congressional committee to share what we’ve done and continue to do to protect our team members,” Mickelson said.