Union calls Smithfield OSHA settlement a betrayal

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 304A chapter, which represents nearly 3,000 South Dakota workers, has issued a statement condemning a federal settlement with Smithfield announced Monday by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

In 2020, an OSHA inspection of the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant led to the company being cited for failing to protect workers from COVID-19 hazards. In September 2020, OSHA reported that at least 1,294 Smithfield workers has contracted COVID-19, and four deaths had been tied to the plant. Two of those deaths were employees Craig Franken and Agustin Rodriquez, who died in April 2020.

In Sept. 2020 following the OSHA announcement, Smithfield representatives called the OSHA citation “wholly without merit” and announced that they would contest it, claiming the company had acted in an “aggressive and comprehensive manner” to protect their employees’ health.

In October 2021, a congressional report compiled by federal lawmakers indicated that more than 1,600 workers (about 42% of employees) at the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant had been infected with COVID-19. The report also charged that many meatpacking executives across the U.S. prioritized profits and production over worker safety.

Smithfield’s formal efforts to contest OSHA’s citation ended Monday when it was announced that the company had settled. As part of the agreement, Smithfield will pay the $13,494 fine for failing to protect workers and will “assemble a team of company and third-party experts to develop an infectious disease preparedness plan that the company will implement at all of its processing facilities nationwide.”

Following the announcement of the settlement, Smithfield’s Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jim Monroe told KELOLAND News via email that the company chose to settle outside of court in order to “continue the good relations it has with the agency, as we have the shared goal of workplace safety.”

Monroe went on to say that Smithfield continues to maintain OSHA’s allegations of non-compliance are baseless and that the company admits no wrongdoing. Rather he sought to cast blame on the federal government and the timing of the pandemic for the outbreak at the Sioux Falls plant.

It is undisputed that in March 2020 the federal government was discouraging the use of face masks outside of healthcare. Regardless, at our Sioux Falls and other facilities, Smithfield moved swiftly in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic – even before receiving direction from health officials – to implement worker safety measures. The company collaborated with the CDC and OSHA to help identify what the industry could do to mitigate the spread of the virus in its facilities.  In fact, when public health officials finally released guidance, Smithfield had already implemented almost all of the recommendations.

Despite Smithfield’s early and aggressive measures, OSHA cited the company for actions taken in March 2020—just as the pandemic was becoming a reality.  Smithfield was, and remains, confident that OSHA’s allegations of non-compliance with OSHA were baseless and we appealed the citation through proper procedural means.

Jim Monroe, Smithfield Foods Vice President of Corporate Affairs

Monroe also claimed that Smithfield had already planned on developing a comprehensive infectious disease plan prior to the OSHA settlement.

The statement from the UFCW Local 304A criticized the new federal agreement for “weakening the citation for worker safety violations,” calling it a “clear failure to recognize the company’s safety issues.” The union also said the settlement “allows the company to police itself on worker safety by appointing its own team of experts to evaluate plant safety and preparedness, even as COVID-19 cases proliferate and risks to workers continue.”

Speaking with KELOLAND News Tuesday afternoon, Local 304A President BJ Motley called the way the settlement played out a betrayal.

“We feel the betrayal is not letting us through the door to be a part of this,” said Motley, referencing the plans to create a new infectious disease preparedness plan.

Motley expressed frustration about not having workers involved earlier in the process as well.

“During the hearings — they seemed to leave us out of the decisions,” he said. “The only thing we wanted to do is just be involved. They created this committee for safety — but they’re leaving the union out, and the union should be a big part of it.”

This assembling of company and third party experts to create the new plan is a point of contention for the union. “We should be a part of that,” emphasized Motley. “We should be a part of the decision making.”

Motley expressed concern over who will be selected as the ‘third party experts.’

“The third party’s their choosing, not our choosing,” he said. “The third party’s the ones that they’ve brought in. How do we know as a union that they’ll listen to our suggestions or our ideas on keeping the place and the workers safe?”

The union’s frustrations are not solely with the company.

“We feel that OSHA is not doing enough to press a lot of these companies on safety issues,” said Motley. “They’re giving a slap on the wrist to these employers — they need to be stronger and put stiffer fines on them.”

A slap on the wrist is how Motley views the $13,494 fine levied against Smithfield.

“For a company that size that’s pennies,” he said. “That’s nothing — $13,000 is not an impact on a company of this size, so to our employees that’s kind of disappointing.”

Motley says the union feels as if Smithfield is not always bargaining in good faith. As to the company’s claims that they implemented safety measures from the beginning, Motley disagrees.

“In the beginning [of the pandemic] we were trying to force them to make attempts to put in safety measures for the employees, which they ignored for weeks. It took until we had about 30-60 cases is when they started to take it seriously,” he said.

Asked whether he believed Smithfield was at fault, Motley was clear. “Yes. The company was at fault.”

Motley doesn’t want Smithfield to close. Were that to happen, hundreds of union members would be out of work. Instead, he and the UFCW want more cooperation.

“We’re here to help the company,” he said. “We’re not here to destroy it or make it look bad. We’re trying to work with them as a whole but we sometimes feel like they don’t want the same thing we want.”

Monroe via email Tuesday responded to a request for comment on the statement made by the UFCW. In his email he thanked plant workers and reiterated the company’s commitment to safety.

Smithfield is grateful for the hard work and dedication of its employees – at Sioux Falls and throughout the company – as we joined together to protect the food supply for all Americans. For its part, in the early days of the pandemic Smithfield identified and implemented health and safety measures before any guidance was forthcoming from any government agency. Those efforts continue to this day.

Jim Monroe, Smithfield Foods Vice President of Corporate Affairs

KELOLAND News reached out to the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, for comment and received the following response from a Department of Labor spokesperson.

The resolution of this case holds Smithfield accountable for the hazards it created at its Sioux Falls plant in this particular case. The settlement also advances worker safety at all Smithfield plants regarding the current COVID-19 pandemic, as well as with future pandemics that may occur. OSHA also reserves all rights it has under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to enforce the settlement terms when appropriate, and to take appropriate enforcement action for any violations at any Smithfield plant in the future.

U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson

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