• Politics
  • Labor

House Democrats Launch Investigation of OSHA, Meat Plants Over COVID-19 Outbreaks

5 minute read

House Democrats are ramping up pressure on large meat producers that have seen continued COVID-19 outbreaks and on federal authorities that they believe have failed to protect workers at the plants during the pandemic.

Rep. James Clyburn, chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, sent letters on Monday to Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA, three of the largest meat producers in the country, requesting information about employee complaints, illnesses and deaths, plant closures, safety measures and other details of how the companies have dealt with COVID-19. He also sent a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Department of Labor’s division tasked with regulating work place safety, requesting information about what he described as “ineffectual” enforcement of safety standards under former President Donald Trump.

Nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants across the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 270 of those people have died, according to the letters. Meatpacking companies “have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and lack adequate paid leave, and have shown a callous disregard for workers’ health,” Clyburn said in the letters.

When the coronavirus first surged last spring, meat processing plants became one of the early work places to see large outbreaks of the virus. Some plants temporarily closed, but after companies warned of food shortages, Trump ordered them to stay open. Workers were deemed essential, and the fast processing line speeds often required them to spend long hours breathing right next to each other without masks. As many continued to get sick throughout the year, unions tried to raise the alarm, and in some cases protested the working conditions and lack of oversight.

Democrats, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, have joined unions and labor experts in criticizing OSHA for the limited number of citations and penalties it has issued to employers as the coronavirus has swept across the country. Last spring, OSHA said most companies should investigate coronavirus-related worker complaints themselves and throughout the pandemic, it has relied on voluntary guidelines rather than issuing new legally enforceable safety rules that employers must follow.

While OSHA has issued over $3.9 million in penalties related to the coronavirus, it issued just eight citations and less than $80,000 in fines for violations at meatpacking companies, according to Clyburn’s letter.

“Public reports indicate that under the Trump Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” the letter states. “It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.”

The companies being investigated by the House subcommittee told TIME they have taken steps to protect their employees from the coronavirus over the last year.

JBS said it has spent $200 million adding safety measures to its facilities and has now offered a $100 incentive for any employee who gets vaccinated. “We welcome the opportunity to provide members of the Select Subcommittee information regarding our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce,” JBS spokesperson Nikki Richardson said in a statement.

Tyson said it has invested “more than half a billion dollars” in safety measures and facility changes. “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,” Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson said in a statement.

And Smithfield, for its part, claimed journalists have spread “inaccuracies and misinformation” about its facilities but that it has spent $700 million on steps to protect its workers during the pandemic.

“From early in the pandemic, we have taken extraordinary measures to protect our team members from the virus and we have met or exceeded the prevailing federal, state and local health and safety guidance, including with personal protective equipment,” Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s chief administrative officer, said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that there are inaccuracies and misinformation in the media on this issue and we look forward to providing the Subcommittee with correct information.”

Since President Joe Biden has taken over the White House, he has signed several Executive Orders aimed at adding more protections for workers and asked OSHA to issue new workplace safety guidance, which it did on Friday. The Government Accountability Office also issued a report last week raising concerns about the Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic and said it would take more steps to examine the meatpacking industry’s response to the virus year.

“Our review of OSHA’s efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing. In addition, in 2021, we plan to begin work on the safety and health of workers at meat and poultry processing plants during the pandemic,” the report said.

Biden installed Jim Frederick, a former safety official for the United Steelworkers union, as acting administrator of OSHA to start off his Administration. OSHA told TIME on Monday that its new guidance is a first step and that it shares Clyburn’s desire to protect workers.

“The letter and its requests are focused on the Trump Administration’s actions surrounding the protection of workers from COVID-19 related risks. The Department of Labor is committed to working with the Committee on our joint commitment to protecting workers,” a Department of Labor spokesperson said in a statement to TIME.

Clyburn has asked for documents from the three meat processing companies by Feb. 15 as well as documentation and a staff briefing for the committee by OSHA by that date.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com