Sandra Sibert, a union representative at the Smithfield plant who debones hams on the early-morning shift, said she sent emails in mid-March to the White House and Smithfield’s human resources department telling them about the grave concerns she had: Thousands of employees were working without masks, workers were packed like “tuna in a can” on processing lines, and several areas within the plant had no hand sanitizer.
When OSHA inspectors arrived at the plant April 20, she was hopeful, but she, too, is disappointed with the outcome. Like Cordova, she worries the OSHA fine is not enough to prompt the company to create more social distancing in the plant, which, records show, Smithfield has fought.
The $13,494 fine, Sibert said, was too low. “It isn’t going to scare them,” she said. “They make that kind of money in a half-hour — less.”
By contrast, California, which runs its own OSHA program, fined a meat plant about $220,000 last week for similar violations.
OSHA defended itself by saying it issued the maximum fine allowed under the law — $13,494 — for citations for a serious violation. Each company received that, and JBS also received a $2,121 fine for an “other-than-serious” violation.
However, critics said their problem was not with the dollar amount for a single violation; their frustration is with the agency’s citation of only one serious violation for each plant. OSHA declined further comment on the fine amounts.
Both companies have fought strict enforcement measures on social distancing and state-ordered quarantines they say drove up absentee rates among workers.
In mid-March, Smithfield Foods’s chief executive, Kenneth Sullivan, sent a letter to Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) saying he had “grave concerns” that the state’s stay-at-home orders were causing “hysteria.”
“We are increasingly at a very high risk that food production employees and others in critical supply chain roles stop showing up for work,” Sullivan wrote in a letter obtained by the nonprofit journalism outlet ProPublica. “This is a direct result of the government continually reiterating the importance of social distancing, with minimal detail surrounding this guidance.”
He added: “Social distancing is a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops.”
In a June 30 letter to Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), Sullivan again pushed back on concerns the lawmakers raised regarding the company’s handling of the virus in their plants.
“Please understand, processing plants were no more designed to operate in a pandemic than hospitals were designed to produce pork,” Sullivan wrote. “In other words, for better or worse, our plants are what they are. Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? Okay. Where?”
JBS flexed its muscle to reopen its doors before it had implemented many of the safety measures Weld County health officials mandated for the Greeley plant in April, when they ordered the plant to close because of coronavirus outbreaks, records show.
Company executives successfully enlisted Vice President Pence and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield to help keep the plant running. On April 10, when the closure order was sent for the plant, Pence and President Trump both mentioned the Greeley plant at the day’s White House coronavirus briefing, promising testing resources to the plant.
An hour later, JBS USA chief executive Andre Nogueira publicly thanked Pence in a news release. Pence spokesman Devin M. O’Malley said other meat plants also were helped and that the vice president’s “efforts were instrumental in ensuring that Americans did not experience food shortages during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.”
The day after the county’s closure order, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, director of Colorado’s health agency, wrote in an email to then-Weld County health director Mark Wallace, saying she had received a call from Redfield regarding the Greeley plant.
“JBS was in touch with the VP who had Director Redfield call me,” she wrote in the April 11 email. Redfield wanted the local and state health authorities to send “asymptomatic people back to work even if we suspect exposure but they have no symptoms,” Ryan wrote. She said she was okay with that if Wallace was.
A state health department employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution from the federal government, said they complied with Redfield’s request out of fear that the state would be cut off from aid it needed from CDC to manage the pandemic.
The employee confirmed there was “heavy involvement from high levels within the federal government.”
Source: The Washington Post