Sep 10, 2020 - Economy & Business

OSHA fines South Dakota meat packing plant for 'failing to protect employees' from coronavirus

The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in April.
The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in April. Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)

The Department of Labor this week issued its first coronavirus-related citation at a meat packing plant, fining the Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. nearly $13,500 for "for failing to protect employees from exposure" to the virus.

Why it matters: The meatpacking plant, located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, became an early coronavirus hotspot in April after hundreds of positive cases were traced to the facility. At the time, the company's sick employees made up about 44% of South Dakota's COVID-19 cases, per the NY Times.

  • Of the 1,294 plant employees who contracted the coronavirus, 43 were hospitalized and four died from complications related to the virus, according to the citation, which was announced on Thursday by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

What they're saying: “Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley said in a statement.

  • “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite," Stanley said.
  • The statement added that the $13,494 fine is the maximum amount allowed by law.

Yes, but: The union that represents the employees of the Sioux Falls plant reportedly called the citation a "slap on the wrist."

  • "This so-called 'fine' is a slap on the wrist for Smithfield, and a slap in the face of the thousands of American meatpacking workers who have been putting their lives on the line to help feed America since the beginning of this pandemic," March Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, told the Bemidji Pioneer newspaper. “How much is the health, safety, and life of an essential worker worth? Based on the actions of the Trump Administration, clearly not much."

What's next: Smithfield Foods said it would contest the citation, per the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

  • "This OSHA citation is wholly without merit and we plan to contest it," Keira Lombardo, a spokeswoman for the company, told the newspaper in an emailed statement.
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