Smithfield Foods, California companies fined for “failing to protect” employees from coronavirus in a new wave of accountability actions by OSHA

One citation was the largest issued so far to a U.S. company for failing to prevent Covid-19 transmission in the workplace.

After months of inaction, the state and federal agencies that enforce workplace safety are publicly cracking down on food companies that they say failed to protect workers from exposure to Covid-19 on the job.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) on Wednesday issued over $220,000 in fines to Overhill Farms, a Los Angeles County frozen food manufacturer, for a set of health and safety violations related to the coronavirus, and a similar fine to its labor contractor, Jobsource. According to citations viewed by The Counter, the companies failed to install barriers or implement procedures to separate workers by at least six feet apart. The companies were also cited for not investigating over 20 employee infections and reporting one death.

Smithfield Foods, the multinational meat processing company headquartered in Smithfield, Virginia, was also fined by federal OSHA for failing to protect employees at its plant in Sioux Falls, North Dakota—the epicenter of one of the nation’s largest Covid-19 hotspots in April.

The Overhill and Jobsource citation is the largest issued so far to a company anywhere in the country for failing to protect workers from the virus.

The fines levied to Overhill and Jobsource were announced five days after California issued what appeared to be its first series of pandemic-related citations to 11 companies in total—including six companies involved in agriculture, two food processors, and one meatpacker—for failing to protect their employees from Covid-19 exposure, the agency said. Those penalties ranged from $2,205 to $51,190, which was levied on DL Poultry in Monterey Park, a Los Angeles suburb, for failing to ensure six feet of distance in its processing area, and failure to install plexiglass or other barriers between workers.

[Subscribe to our 2x-weekly newsletter and never miss a story.]

The Overhill and Jobsource citation is the largest issued so far to a company anywhere in the country for failing to protect workers from the virus, according to a spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770 (UFCW), which represents grocery and meatpacking workers in California, including those who work for Overhill Farms. In April, after a worker at one of the Vernon, California locations died from Covid-19, the union filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA. Overhill is one of several food processing and packing plants in the Vernon area that endured Covid-19 outbreaks this spring.

“It has been scary working through this pandemic and watching co-workers get sick while wondering if I will be next,” Hilda Morales, an Overhill worker, said in a statement. “I’m glad to see Overhill being held accountable, and more importantly, hopeful that we will have safer conditions at work moving forward.”

“It should not be so dangerous to go to work every day.”

In a press release, Cal/OSHA said it opened the inspection after receiving complaints. On visits to two facilities where workers manufacture frozen foods, inspectors found 510 employees who were not physically distanced in the area where they clocked in and out of their shifts, at the cart where they donned protective wear, and in the break room. Inspectors also found that Overhill hadn’t installed barriers or implemented social distancing on the processing lines.

That wasn’t all: Overhill and Jobsource had failed to investigate 20-plus illnesses and report a Covid-19-related death to the agency, Cal/OSHA found. Additionally, the companies were cited for not having an injury and illness prevention plan that addresses Covid-19, which California requires. In addition to the $222,075 in penalties, Cal/OSHA has issued Overhill another additional $14,450 for violations not related to Covid-19. It is also fining Jobsource, the company’s labor contractor, $214,080 in penalties. Both companies can appeal the fines.

“It should not be so dangerous to go to work every day,” John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770, said in a statement. “Now the state of California has weighed in with meaningful citations that show just how dangerous the working conditions were.” 

Workplace safety in other states and U.S. territories is enforced by federal OSHA, which has been roundly criticized for failing to investigate workplace complaints related to Covid-19.

After this story published, an Overhill spokesperson contacted The Counter to “strongly contest” the citations, saying that the company had “gone above and beyond” federal, state, and local coronavirus guidance. In a statement, the company said it installed over 144 plexiglass dividers in its factories, and made reports to city and county health departments, but did not say when. 

California is one of 22 states with its own OSHA agency, and it has the ability to hold employers to higher safety standards, like those related to environmental heat. Other states, notably Virginia, have enacted their own Covid-19 standards.

Workplace safety in other states and U.S. territories is enforced by federal OSHA, which has been roundly criticized for failing to investigate workplace complaints related to Covid-19. At one point, the agency had issued only one citation after receiving 4,775 complaints, and that was to a Georgia nursing home, for failing to keep proper paperwork. It continues to close the vast majority of complaints it receives, according to public data.

In its sanctioning of Smithfield Foods, federal OSHA cited the company for one violation of a general duty clause—one that requires employers to keep a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm. In a press release, the agency said it levied a penalty of $13,494, the maximum allowed by law.

California is one of 22 states with its own OSHA agency, and it has the ability to hold employers to higher safety standards, like those related to environmental heat.

At least 1,294 Smithfield employees contracted coronavirus, and four employees died from the virus, the agency reported. That number exceeds what the company reported in August, when it said 929 employees, or more than a quarter of the plant, had been infected.

The company, whose CEO has previously stirred controversy by claiming social distancing is “a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops,” and telling Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren that facility plants could not be re-engineered because they “are what they are,” told the Argus Leader that the citation is “without merit” and plans to challenge it. 

Smithfield has 15 business days to comply or contest the findings.

Sam Bloch is a staff writer for The Counter.