US House Launches Investigation Into Meatpacking Plants, JBS For ‘Failing To Protect Workers From COVID-19’

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Beatriz Rangel in Greeley on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Her father Saul Sanchez, who worked at the JBS meatpacking plant for three decades, died from COVID-19 in April this year. She holds a photo memento of him at her office.

A federal panel of lawmakers has launched an investigation into multiple major meatpacking companies over the spread of coronavirus in their plants, including the JBS USA facility in Greeley.

In a letter to a federal occupational safety official, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina said that, under the Trump Administration, "the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or 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, who is a Democrat, heads the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

He alleges Trump-era OSHA did not respond quickly enough to complaints or hit companies with unsafe practices with big enough fines.

Former OSHA official Deborah Berkowitz, who served during the Obama administration, told NPR's Morning Edition in January that the federal office should have done 10,000 to 20,000 safety inspections since March, but that the number was closer to just a few hundred. She also noted OSHA's lack of standardized, nationwide requirements for businesses.

Beyond JBS, Clyburn's letter also questioned the safety practices of Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods.

Clyburn said nearly 54,000 plant workers across the country have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 270 have died. Six of those worked for JBS in Colorado. One corporate JBS employee has also died of COVID-19.

"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.

It's unclear what that rectification would look like, but Clyburn did urge OSHA to do everything in its power to protect meatpacking plant workers now.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified meatpacking plants as a source for rapid transmission of the coronavirus.

Clyburn sent a letter to JBS officials on Monday asking for documents related to the investigation. He wrote that JBS — which currently has an active outbreak in both its corporate office and its beef processing plant — has "shown a callous disregard for workers’ health."

The letter also claims JBS refused to take precautions to protect workers, who make low wages and lack paid leave. Meatpacking workers are also largely Black and Hispanic, two communities that have been more vulnerable to COVID-19 and the pandemic's economic fallout.

In response to the investigation, JBS provided a written statement that said it has offered unlimited PPE to employees, enacted social distancing protocols, provided COVID testing and covered health costs.

"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 JBS spokesperson Cameron Bruett in the emailed statement.

The Greeley plant was shut down for several days in April for failing to meet Weld County health officials' instructions for preventing virus spread. Workers reported tight quarters and threats that those who needed to quarantine would lose their jobs.

The company says it has invested more than $200 million in health and safety interventions and more than $160 million in bonuses and increased pay.

The first outbreak of COVID-19 at the Greeley plant began last spring. It was one of the largest the state has handled, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The company has also asserted that some of its workers who died of COVID-19 did not catch the virus at work, but OSHA determined differently. The federal government fined JBS $15,615 on Sept. 11 for failing to adequately protect its employees from COVID-19.