Smithfield settlement can’t be used in COVID lawsuits

By: - November 16, 2021 4:46 pm

Smithfield Foods has reached a settlement with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) over COVID-19 mitigation. (Photo by OSHA)

Smithfield Foods agreed this week to pay the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration $13,494 to settle a citation for failing to protect its meatpacking employees in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from exposure to the coronavirus last year, but the company didn’t admit it did anything wrong.

As such, the settlement can’t be “used or admitted in evidence in any proceeding or litigation” by affected workers, according to the settlement agreement obtained by Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Clauses that stipulate no admission of wrongdoing are common in settlements with governmental regulators, but OSHA’s oversight of meatpackers during the pandemic has already been highly criticized.

“Given the hundreds of meatpacking worker deaths associated with meatpacking plants, there is ample evidence of the grave risk they have faced at their jobs during the pandemic,” wrote U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., to OSHA in February. “Yet rather than use its authority to create an enforceable standard … OSHA only suggested non-binding guidance that companies are free to ignore.”

Clyburn is chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which revealed late last month that more than 59,000 workers of the five largest meatpackers in the country — including Smithfield — were infected by the virus, and about 270 of them died. That was about triple the previous estimates.

At Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant, nearly 1,300 workers were infected and four died as of June 2020 in the early months of the pandemic, OSHA reported.

Packing plants were early incubators of the virus in Iowa. Counties with large beef- or pork-processing facilities had more than double the infection rates of counties without, according to a national study.

Gov. Kim Reynolds deemed the facilities an essential service and declined to close or limit them at the beginning of the pandemic as she did with other businesses. In May, she told a Fox News commentator the state was able to “ensure the employees that they were working in a safe environment” through widespread testing for infections.

As part of Smithfield’s settlement with OSHA, the company is required to convene a team of experts to evaluate its infectious disease protocols and then update those protocols based on the expert recommendations. Smithfield is expected to implement those procedures at all of its processing facilities by November 2022, according to the agreement.

“The terms of this settlement are intended to ensure that Smithfield employees receive the training and protective measures necessary to protect them from exposure to the infectious diseases at their facilities,” said Jennifer Rous, an OSHA regional administrator. “What happened at this (Sioux Falls) facility was tragic, and we must ensure that all steps in the agreement are followed to prevent a mass outbreak from happening again.”

The labor union that represents the workers of the Sioux Falls plant said it was disappointed by the settlement because it “failed to deliver the real accountability these South Dakota workers and their families deserve.”

“This deal is nothing more than a slap on the wrist for Smithfield and a deeply troubling betrayal of the men and women who have already sacrificed so much in this pandemic,” said B.J. Motley, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 304A.

Meatpacking plant outbreaks have spawned numerous lawsuits, including one against Smithfield in Missouri last year that sought greater health protections for workers. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit because Smithfield had already instituted many of those protections and because the issue was under OSHA’s jurisdiction.

Other lawsuits against meatpackers have sought compensation for wrongful deaths, including one against Tyson Foods that alleges supervisors at its pork processing plant in Waterloo bet money on how many workers would be infected.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.