The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been criticized for issuing an allegedly inadequate first COVID-19 citation to Smithfield Packaged Meats Corporation for "failing to protect employees from coronavirus."
On Thursday, OHSA announced a proposed penalty totaling $13,494 to the company based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "Based on a coronavirus-related inspection, OSHA cited the company for one violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm," OSHA said in a statement.
At least 1,294 staffers at the Smithfield plant tested positive for coronavirus. Four of those employees died from the virus this spring.
"Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers' safety and health," said OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley. "Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite."
The Democrat-controlled House Committee on Education and Labor quickly moved to condemn OSHA for the amount proposed in the citation, noting that it equated to roughly $10 per infected worker.
"President Trump's worker safety agency finally penalized a meatpacking plant where more than 1,200 workers were infected with COVID-19. Four of those workers died," the committee said in a statement shared to Twitter. "The total fine: Less than $10 per infected worker. A total failure to protect workers."
Despite the criticism, OHSA noted that the proposed penalty was the maximum amount allowed by law for a serious violation. For "repeated" or "wilful" violations, the maximum penalty is set at $134,937.
In a statement to Newsweek, a Department of Labor spokesperson said OSHA issued "the maximum monetary penalty allowed by Congress."
"In addition, OSHA's citation requires the employer to abate the hazard," the spokesperson added. "OSHA conducted its investigation and issued its citation in accordance with well-established procedures and legal standards."
Smithfield has been given 15 business days to comply with the fine, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director or contest the findings before the independent OSHA Review Commission.
Keira Lombardo, Smithfield's Executive Vice President of corporate affairs and compliance, told Newsweek on Thursday night that they intend to contest the OSHA's "wholly without merit" citation.
"We took extraordinary measures on our own initiative to keep our employees as healthy and safe as possible so that we could fulfil our obligation to the American people to maintain the food supply," Lombardo said. "We incurred incremental expenses related to COVID-19 totaling $350 million during the second quarter alone."
The American pork producer and processing company closed in April after large numbers of their employees began contracting the novel virus. Slaughterhouses and meatpackers across the country have seen thousands of workers infected with COVID since the pandemic was declared a national emergency in March.
OSHA's fine to Smithfield today marks the first time a fine has been issued to a major domestic meatpacker for failure to protect staffers against COVID-19.
Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter for HuffPost, suggested that the fine indicated the cost of a worker's life in America. "Want to know what a worker's life is worth in America?," he said. "More than 1,000 workers at Smithfield's Sioux Falls SD plant contracted coronavirus. Four of those workers died. OSHA just issued a fine against that plant. For $13,494."