Above photo: Some Smithfield Foods workers and their families have protested against the company’s decision not to close plants amid the coronavirus pandemic. Christina Stella / NET Radio.
The Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, which was the epicenter of one of the nation’s largest coronavirus hotspots in April, has been fined by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Thursday that it was fining the Smithfield Packaged Meats Corporation for $13,494 for “failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus,” a news release states. The fine is the maximum amount allowed by law.
At least 1,294 Smithfield employees contracted coronavirus, and four employees died from the virus, the release states. The Argus Leader had previously only reported two Smithfield worker deaths from COVID-19 — Craig Franken and Augustin Rodriguez.
A Smithfield study released in August reported 929 employees, or 25.6% of all employees at the plant, had been infected, along with 210 close contacts. The previous number reported by the state had been 853 employees.
The inspection date was for April 20 through Sept. 2.
Although union representatives said that workers asked for coronavirus precautions and protections at the beginning of the pandemic, they were denied by Smithfield management. Instead, the company offered a $500 responsibility bonus.
The company installed a temperature station at the entrance to the plant once the outbreak gained national attention. The first case was reported March 24 and the plant was temporarily closed April 13 after Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken wrote a letter asking them to close for two weeks.
“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” said OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley in the news release. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”
Smithfield: Citation ‘wholly without merit’
But Smithfield argued that it responded “immediately” to the outbreak at the Sioux Falls plant, said Keira Lombardo, Smithfield Foods executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance.
“This OSHA citation is wholly without merit and we plan to contest it,” Lombardo said in an emailed statement.
Lombardo said the fine isn’t applicable to Smithfield because OSHA did not issue guidelines for the meatpacking industry until April 26, after the plant closed and had the CDC, South Dakota Department of Health and USDA tour the facility to make precaution recommendations. OSHA then based its recommendations on changes made to the facility, she said.
Although Smithfield management repeatedly invited OSHA to tour the plant in March and April, representatives did not visit, Lombardo said.
“We took extraordinary measures on our own initiative to keep our employees as healthy and safe as possible so that we could fulfill our obligation to the American people to maintain the food supply,” Lombardo said. “We incurred incremental expenses related to COVID-19 totaling $350 million during the second quarter alone.”
Smithfield Foods has 15 days to pay or contest the penalty.
Union: Fine is ‘insulting and slap on the wrist’
The union representing Smithfield Foods workers, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, issued a news release Thursday afternoon condemning the $13,494 fine as insufficient, “insulting and a slap on the wrist.”
“How much is the health, safety, and life of an essential worker worth? Based on the actions of the Trump Administration, clearly not much,” said UFCW President Marc Perrone in the release. “This so-called ‘fine’ is a slap on the wrist for Smithfield, and a slap in the face of the thousands of American meatpacking workers who have been putting their lives on the line to help feed America since the beginning of this pandemic.”
The union blamed the federal agency for lack of action throughout the pandemic and called for increased national access to personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing.
“This response by OSHA confirms that the company will not face any real consequences,” Perrone said.
There have been 122 meatpacking worker deaths nationwide, with more than 18,000 meatpacking workers infected or exposed to the coronavirus, the release states.