Business

House panel launches probe into meatpackers' coronavirus response

Posted February 1, 2021 3:16 p.m. EST

— A panel of House representatives is launching an investigation into how major meat processors and OSHA handled coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking facilities.

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, chaired by Representative James Clyburn, said Monday that it has sent out letters to Tyson, Smithfield and JBS USA, along with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, asking for more information about their response to worker illnesses.

"Public reports indicate that meatpacking companies ... have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers," Clyburn wrote in letters to the meatpacking companies. "These actions appear to have resulted in thousands of meatpacking workers getting infected with the virus and hundreds dying. Outbreaks at meatpacking plants have also spread to surrounding communities, killing many more Americans."

Meatpacking factories emerged as early coronavirus hotspots because of cramped worker conditions. The companies periodically took facilities offline when workers fell ill. But some workers said in the spring that efforts to curb the virus came too late.

"According to media reports, nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants across the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 270 have died," Clyburn wrote in the letters. He asked the companies to share the number of workers who have contracted and died of Covid-19 in each of their facilities.

Clyburn also requested records of complaints and concerns the companies received from workers, descriptions of their processes for tracking and resolving those issues, and how many remain outstanding. And he asked for copies of documents tracking federal or state investigations into the facilities, information on employee benefits, documents and communications outlining the implementation of safety measures recommended by the CDC, and more.

In response to the investigation, spokespeople for Tyson, Smithfield and JBS USA said the companies look forward to working with the subcommittee.

"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 Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson.

The companies each laid out the efforts they've taken to protect workers, including supplying workers with personal protective equipment, setting up barriers to allow for social distancing and testing workers for Covid-19, among other things. Each noted that they've spent hundreds of millions of dollars on protective measures.

In addition to the meatpacking companies, Clyburn is seeking more information from OSHA.

"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," Clyburn wrote in the letter, saying that he is "concerned that under the Trump Administration, OSHA did not fulfill its mission to protect vulnerable meatpacking workers during the pandemic."

"The letter and its requests are focused on the Trump administration's actions surrounding the protection of workers from COVID-19 related risks," said a Department of Labor spokesperson. "The Department of Labor is committed to working with the Committee on our joint commitment to protecting workers."

— CNN's Kevin Bohn and Dianne Gallagher contributed to this report.

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