4 meat workers at a Smithfield plant died from COVID-19 — the feds fined the company $13,494

The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday proposed that Smithfield Foods pay a $13,494 fine for failing to protect employees at a meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where nearly 1,300 workers contracted COVID-19 and four died.

The penalty, the maximum allowed by law, comes after the agency’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted an inspection of the pork processing plant after it closed for several weeks in April and May due to an outbreak of the coronavirus among employees. OSHA cited Smithfield for not providing a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm.

The agency’s guidance details steps employers can take to protect workers during the pandemic, which has killed more than 191,000 Americans. Those include social distancing, physical barriers, face shields and face coverings, along with safety warnings communicated in a language that a company’s workers understand.

“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley stated in a news release. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”

Smithfield challenging fine

Smithfield dismissed OSHA’s findings as without merit and said it would contest them. 

“We took extraordinary measures on our own initiative to keep our employees as healthy and safe as possible so that we could fulfill our obligation to the American people to maintain the food supply,” Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, stated in an email. “We incurred incremental expenses related to COVID-19 totaling $350 million during the second quarter alone. Ironically, OSHA then used what we had done as a model for its April 26 guidance.”

According to Smithfield, the Sioux Falls community experienced an early spike in COVID-19 cases, which affected its plant. The company’s response included urging OSHA to visit its operations in March and April — appeals that were ignored, Lombardo said.

Union: No “real consequences” for deaths

Both OSHA and Smithfield were condemned by the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 1.3 million meatpacking and other essential workers, including those at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls.

“Smithfield is a multi-billion-dollar corporation that failed to protect its workers, with multiple deaths and more than a thousand infections on their watch. This response by OSHA confirms that the company will not face any real consequences,” Marc Perrone, the union’s international president, said in an email.

Ahead of OSHA’s disclosure that four Smithfield workers had died of COVID-19, local media had only reported two Smithfield worker deaths from the virus. 

A study released last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 929 employees — a quarter of the plant’s workers — had been infected, along with 210 close contacts. The prior tally reported by the state had been 853 employees.

OSHA subpoenaed South Dakota health officials in June, requiring them to turn over any test results, correspondence with Smithfield or photos of the plant. The following month, Smithfield asked the U.S. District Court of South Dakota to quash the subpoena. The company’s legal move was later dismissed by the court after Smithfield and OSHA reached agreement on the issues involved.