Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) is turning up the heat on giant meat producers that he believes let COVID-19 fester among workers at their facilities—and on the federal authorities he suggested failed to shield them from abuses.
Clyburn—the House Majority Whip, chairman of the new Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, and the man widely credited with securing the Democratic nomination for Joe Biden last year—blasted a fusillade of letters on Monday to Biden’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and major meat producers alike. These messages reflect his subcommittee’s findings that some 54,000 workers have contracted the novel coronavirus at 569 meatpacking plants across the U.S., based on news reports. Of those, 270 are reported to have died.
The congressman roasted OSHA’s response under President Donald Trump as “ineffectual,” and asserted it had refused to respond aggressively to violations.
“Public reports indicate that under the Trump Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker-safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” Clyburn wrote in his missive to OSHA. “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 targeted giants JBS, Smithfield, Cargill, and Tyson, alluding to reports that they had obligated their vulnerable workforce to labor under dangerous conditions. He also cited a National Academy of Sciences study that linked between 236,000 and 310,000 COVID-19 infections and as many as 5,200 fatalities to meat-processing installations.
The congressman called on three of the companies and OSHA to appear before the House at a hearing on Feb. 15. In his letter to OSHA, Clyburn demanded the agency arrive at the subcommittee hearing with a detailed breakdown of complaints it had received, and of its responses.
“A swift and forceful response from OSHA could have led meatpacking companies to adopt stronger safety measures, preventing outbreaks and saving lives,” his letter reads. “But in 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.”
Of the companies, Clyburn demanded they come prepared to present details on internal complaints they received and how they tracked and responded to reports of violations.
The companies who responded to The Daily Beast maintained they had invested heavily in shielding their staff—$200 million, in the case of JBS.
“We welcome the opportunity to provide members of the Select Subcommittee information regarding our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce,” said spokeswoman Nikki Richardson.
Smithfield, for its part, blamed the press for its problems and insisted that it had sunk $700 million into safety measures at its facilities.
“From early in the pandemic, we have taken extraordinary measures to protect our team members from the virus and we have met or exceeded the prevailing federal, state and local health and safety guidance, including with personal protective equipment,” said Chief Administrative Officer Keira Lombardo. “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.”
Tyson similarly asserted it had introduced new precautions to prevent further infections, though unlike its industry peers it did not provide a precise investment figure. “Our top priority will always be the health and safety of our people, and we look forward to working with the congressional committee to share what we’ve done and continue to do to protect our team members from the coronavirus,” said spokesman Gary Mickelson.
Despite all these efforts, as Clyburn’s letter underscored, every one of these companies witnessed severe outbreaks at their plants last year.
The Department of Labor, which runs OSHA, confirmed it had received the letter, and appeared to blame the problems it highlighted on its former Republican leadership. It also pointed to new guidance OSHA issued Friday on workplace protections.
“The letter and its requests are focused on the Trump administration’s actions surrounding the protection of workers from COVID-19 related risks,” a spokesperson said. “The Department of Labor is committed to working with the Committee on our joint commitment to protecting workers.”