Union Complaint May Trigger Review of Meatpacking Virus Response

It offers regulators in the Biden administration an opportunity to say whether they believe the meatpacking industry is doing enough to protect workers.

Tyson Foods workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at the company's Camilla, Georgia poultry processing plant.
Tyson Foods workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at the company's Camilla, Georgia poultry processing plant.
AP File

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A union complaint about whether an Oklahoma meatpacking plant is doing enough to protect workers from the coronavirus could test the industry's response to the pandemic because Seaboard Foods says it is following recommendations from the government and trade groups.

The local United Food and Commercial Workers union filed a complaint this week with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma. The union says Seaboard should be doing more to promote social distancing at the plant and to encourage workers exposed to the coronavirus to stay home from work.

The complaint offers regulators in the Biden administration an opportunity to say whether they believe the meatpacking industry is doing enough to protect workers because Seaboard officials said they have taken a number of steps similar to what other companies have done, including checking employee temperatures before work, installing plexiglass barriers between some work stations and in the cafeteria and stepping up sanitization of the plant.

Industry officials have credited those measures with slowing the spread of the virus that tore through meatpacking plants last spring and prompted many plants to close temporarily after major outbreaks.

“It well could be a good test for the administration to really address the needs of the meatpacking workers,” said Martin Rosas, president of the local union that filed the complaint. “We want OSHA to set an example to companies like Seaboard that worker safety must be a priority. Period.”

OSHA officials said they have opened an investigation into the Seaboard complaint.

In the past, the UFCW union has criticized OSHA for issuing only voluntary guidelines for the meatpacking industry last year on steps companies should take to protect workers from the virus. The industry is waiting for OSHA officials to decide this year whether to replace those guidelines with a set of mandatory requirements to protect workers from the virus. An executive order Biden signed in January directed OSHA to consider issuing federal emergency standards on workplace protections.

Labor Department spokeswoman Denisha Braxton said Wednesday that OSHA is focusing its enforcement efforts on industries where workers are at the greatest risk of getting sick with the virus, including meat production plants.

“The agency is working to continually improve our ability to protect workplaces in these critical industries where workers are in close proximity to each other,” Braxton said.

Workplace safety expert Celeste Monforton said the Oklahoma complaint and others like it offer OSHA the chance to change its approach to the virus in meatpacking plants. At least two other complaints related to COVID-19 have been filed this year about meatpacking plants in Kansas and Wisconsin, according to OSHA records.

“This will be really interesting to see how this plays out,” said Monforton, a lecturer in public health at Texas State University who is active with the American Public Health Association.

Seaboard said that since the start of the pandemic, six of its workers have died from COVID-19 and 1,014 of the plant’s roughly 2,500 workers have tested positive for the virus, which includes when 440 workers tested positive last May during mass testing at the plant. But the union said the company has only reported a handful of those cases to OSHA because Seaboard decided most weren't work related.

Seaboard spokesman David Eaheart said the company is trying to ensure worker safety, and the plant has gone through millions of face masks and more than 4000 gallons (15141.65 litres) of hand sanitizer as part of that effort.

“Seaboard Foods continues to adapt to ensure our Guymon, Oklahoma, pork processing plant remains a safe place to work while producing much-needed food for tables across our communities and the country,” Eaheart said. “We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help protect our employees while still working to meet our commitment as an essential business.”

The company hosted a vaccination clinic at the plant earlier this month, and more than 900 workers have received at least one shot as part of being vaccinated for the virus.

Seaboard said it also provides two weeks of sick leave for workers who test positive for COVID-19 although the union complained that the company doesn't do the same thing for workers who have been exposed to the virus but haven't tested positive.

Rosas with the union said the plant isn't doing as much as other meatpacking plants have to ensure worker safety. For instance, he said the plant has installed plastic barriers only in limited parts of the production line and educational materials about the virus have been provided only in English and Spanish — not the native languages of the many workers at the plant from South Africa and Laos.

“Seaboard has not even performed the simplest task of consistently placing markers on the ground where workers should be standing. Instead, the workers on the line stand less than arm lengths apart—almost shoulder to shoulder. On first shift, there are approximately 120 employees working on the kill floor and 500 employees in the fabrication department, all crowded together, nearly shoulder to shoulder,” the union said in its complaint.

Rosas, who visited the plant on Monday, said hundreds of workers routinely crowd into a small cafeteria on breaks where they eat with only a plastic shield dividing the small tables in half to limit the spread of the virus. Rosas said more space is needed and break times should be staggered to reduce crowding.

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