UFCW hits tiny fine of Smithfield for Sioux Falls virus rampage
Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota | Stephen Groves/AP

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. —The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s small fine collected from Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. for last year’s coronavirus rampage through its Sioux Falls, S.D., pork plant angers B.J. Motley, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 304A, which represents the plant’s workers.

But it also illustrates the weakness of federal labor laws. The $13,494 that OSHA fined Smithfield after the 2020 outbreak, and that it agreed to on Nov. 15, is the maximum for a single “serious” violation that OSHA can impose. OSHA’s 2020 report showed one violation.

To Motley, that fine’s just “a slap on the wrist.” He added the fine and the settlement agreement Smithfield signed will let the pork producer “police itself.” Six months ago, when OSHA first proposed that fine, UFCW President Marc Perrone used the same wrist slap words.

How minuscule is the fine? Smithfield is now privately held, owned by a Hong Kong firm since 2013. It’s on its third CEO in three years. There are no recent profit and loss figures.

But its last public report to the federal government, before the takeover, showed then-CEO Larry Pope had $16.5 million in total compensation in 2012. Scattered media reports for Pope’s successors include figures at least double that sum.

By contrast, “Smithfield workers put their health at risk daily to make sure Americans could feed their families during this pandemic. The Sioux Falls plant experienced one of the most deadly and dangerous Covid-19 (coronavirus) outbreaks in the country,” Motley said.

“Our leaders have a responsibility to protect America’s frontline workers who have been bravely putting their lives at risk to keep our country’s food supply chain strong throughout this crisis. This deal is nothing more than a slap on the wrist for Smithfield and a deeply troubling betrayal of the men and women who have already sacrificed so much in this pandemic.

Failed to deliver

“OSHA failed to deliver the real accountability these South Dakota workers and their families deserve with meaningful action to strengthen worker safety protections.”

OSHA cited the plant, the nation’s largest pork processor, after its inspector reported the coronavirus, officially Covid-19, became so rampant that 1,294 of the workers tested positive, 43 were hospitalized and four died. Local 304A has 3,000 members at the plant.

The plant became a “superspreader” in the early months of the pandemic. At one point it was one of six meat and poultry plants on the nation’s top 10 list of coronavirus hotspots.

The plague was so bad that city Mayor Paul TenHaken, Motley, and the South Dakota AFL-CIO, led by President Kooper Caraway, advocated not just closing and fumigating the plant, but strong measures to prevent the virus’s spread into Sioux Falls and the area.

But, even then Sioux Falls was under the thrall of GOP President Donald Trump’s denial of the plague’s seriousness, and right-wing GOP Gov. Kristi Noem’s refusal to even battle the virus by simple measures such as mask-wearing and physical distancing of workers. Residents rebelled and the city council rejected the anti-virus resolution.

OSHA used its General Duty Clause, a catchall clause which is hard for its inspectors to prove, to fine Smithfield. The fine is part of the Nov. 15 settlement. Its citation said Smithfield “did not furnish…a place of employment…free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees in that employees were working in close proximity to each other and were exposed to SARS-CoV-2,” the coronavirus.

“On or about and at times prior to March 23, 2020, the employer did not develop or implement timely and effective measures to mitigate exposures to the hazard of SARS-CoV-2.”

In the settlement, Smithfield also committed “to assemble a team of company and third-party experts to develop an infectious disease preparedness plan the company will implement at all of its processing facilities nationwide… to change its health procedures and training relating to infectious diseases,” OSHA said. Local 304A is not mentioned.

OSHA Regional Administrator Jennifer Rous said the settlement is “intended to ensure Smithfield employees receive the training and protective measures necessary to protect them from exposure to the infectious diseases at their facilities.

“We must ensure all steps in the agreement are followed to prevent a mass outbreak from happening again.”

Smithfield, however, is still in a state of denial—or at least one top honcho is. Vice President for Corporate Affairs Jim Monroe e-mailed Sioux Falls TV station KELO the firm settled “to maintain good relations with OSHA” as both work towards worker safety. But Monroe also wrote Smithfield continues to believe OSHA’s complaint was baseless.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

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