In this file:
· Meatpacking workers file lawsuit against OSHA, accusing agency of failing to keep them safe
· They Warned OSHA They Were in “Imminent Danger” at the Meat Plant. Now They’re Suing the Agency.
Meatpacking workers file lawsuit against OSHA, accusing agency of failing to keep them safe
By Eli Rosenberg, The Washington Post
July 23, 2020
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is failing to do its job properly, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by three meatpacking workers, who say the agency’s inaction has left them in danger.
The lawsuit accuses OSHA of leaving the workers in imminent danger due to what they say are hazardous working conditions at the factory where they work, run by Maid-Rite Specialty Foods in Pennsylvania, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Maid-Rite Specialty Foods did not respond to multiple emails and telephone requests for comment.
Representatives for OSHA and the Labor Department did not respond to a request for comment. But OSHA officials have said that they believe its existing regulations, along with the updated guidelines put out during the pandemic, are sufficient to keep workers safe.
The lawsuit is one of several legal challenges seeking to compel OSHA, as well as private businesses, to act more forcefully to uphold protections around worker safety.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Pennsylvania, is based on a complaint that attorneys working on behalf of the workers filed with OSHA in May.
The complaint accused Maid-Rite of failing to provide adequate protective gear or social distancing on the processing lines.
The Maid-Rite workers also said in the complaint that the company did not handle ill employees in a safe manner, failing to separate sick employees and to inform all of those who worked closely with them when there were infections. The complaint also said the company gave workers incentives to work while sick, by offering bonuses to those who didn’t miss days.
The lawsuit claims that OSHA failed to adequately respond to that complaint, as it is required to do.
Two of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, David Muraskin, at the nonprofit Public Justice, and David Seligman, executive director of the worker legal group Towards Justice, say that the case will serve as another test of whether OSHA can be held accountable in court.
“This is because of the federal government’s failure to step in here,” Seligman said of the lawsuit. "We hope that the lawsuit spurs OSHA into action for these workers. Every day they go to work, they’re in imminent danger. If the virus were to enter the facility, there’s every reason to believe that it could cause death.”
Back in May, Loren Sweatt, the principal deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, testified before Congress that the agency received 4,268 coronavirus-related complaints as of May 21, of which nearly 3,000 had already been closed. She said that worker safety has been the agency’s “top priority” during the pandemic and that it will increase in-person inspections and enforcement of workplace coronavirus case reporting as states reopen.
Yet despite the complaints, the federal agency had issued only one citation as of the end of May. And OSHA has declined so far to issue emergency regulations that would force national safety standards for workplaces dealing with the virus, the kind that companies must adhere to under threat of citations and penalties.
While OSHA hasn’t responded to a request for comment on this lawsuit, the agency did respond to the workers complaint from May, according to supporting documents included in the lawsuit.
A day after OSHA received the original complaint on behalf of Maid-Rite Specialty Foods workers, Mark Stelmack, an area director for OSHA in its Wilkes-Barre office, wrote to Maid-Rite outlining the allegations it put forth, according to the lawsuit.
Stelmack requested that Maid-Rite Specialty Foods immediately investigate the concerns and “make any necessary corrections or modifications” but noted that “OSHA does not intend to conduct an on-site inspection in response to the subject complaint at this time," the lawsuit stated...
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They Warned OSHA They Were in “Imminent Danger” at the Meat Plant. Now They’re Suing the Agency.
The suit by workers at Maid-Rite Specialty Foods in Pennsylvania employs a rarely used legal tool and is the latest in a growing chorus of complaints about how the federal agency charged with protecting workers has responded to COVID-19.
by Bernice Yeung and Michael Grabell, ProPublica
July 23, 2020
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.
Frustrated by the lack of response to their complaint of the “imminent danger” posed by COVID-19, three meatpacking workers at the Maid-Rite Specialty Foods plant outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, took the unusual step Wednesday of filing a lawsuit against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia.
The lawsuit, filed in a Pennsylvania federal court, accuses the government of failing to protect essential workers from dangerous conditions that could expose them to the coronavirus. It relies on a rarely used provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act that allows workers to sue the secretary of labor for “arbitrarily or capriciously” failing to counteract imminent dangers.
On May 19, the Maid-Rite workers had turned to a Pennsylvania organization called Justice at Work to help them file an anonymous complaint with OSHA that detailed the lack of protections at the plant and described how they were required to work elbow-to-elbow with their co-workers on the production line.
Their complaint followed a similar report from another Maid-Rite employee in early April, which the workers weren’t aware of at the time.
The three workers followed up on their May complaint with calls to OSHA officials, as well as letters and urgent updates with detailed descriptions of their working conditions. They’d only been given masks three times. They have to use crowded bathrooms to wash their hands.
They were now taking the government to court, the lawsuit said, because they “cannot wait any longer for OSHA to act.”
Although the lawsuit focuses on the conditions at Maid-Rite, it also argues that OSHA’s failure to respond effectively to workers’ COVID-19 concerns is part of a larger pattern. Liz Chacko, an attorney and the deputy director of Justice at Work, said the case illustrates the extent to which meatpacking workers feel abandoned in the wake of COVID-19. “Our clients have been failed twice — by their employer first and then by OSHA because OSHA is charged with protecting workers in this country,” she said.
In an email, a Department of Labor spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit but said OSHA opened an inspection with Maid-Rite Specialty Foods on June 2 and has six months to complete it. No further details will be publicly available until the inspection is complete, the spokesperson said.
Maid-Rite has not yet responded to a request for comment. In the company’s response to the first worker’s OSHA complaint, it said, “Maid-Rite places a strong emphasis on workplace safety and has taken the threat posed by COVID-19 very seriously.”
As the pandemic has unfolded, meatpacking plants have emerged, along with hospitals and nursing homes, as hot spots for COVID-19. To date, more than 33,000 coronavirus cases have been tied to meat and poultry plants, and at least 132 meatpacking workers have died, according to a ProPublica review of government data, public records and news reports.
ProPublica could not determine if workers had been infected with the coronavirus at Maid-Rite. Court documents say two of the workers who filed suit have contracted COVID-19. Pennsylvania’s Health Department said it does not release information on specific locations.
ProPublica has previously reported that despite receiving thousands of complaints, OSHA has not prioritized essential workers like meatpackers in its COVID-19 enforcement efforts. Public health departments across the country have found themselves overwhelmed by the flood of cases linked to the meat industry, which has sometimes stymied the efforts of local officials to curb the spread of the virus.
In response to what they see as OSHA’s weak response to what some have called the greatest worker safety crisis in the agency’s history, workers have sued the plants to compel reforms and turned to the courts to pursue temporary regulations. Unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers have tried to negotiate for improved safety measures, and some state and local officials have issued workplace safety protections of their own.
The Maid-Rite lawsuit is the latest effort by worker advocates to push for enhanced pandemic safeguards in the meat and poultry processing plants.
The Pennsylvania facility had, in fact, been on OSHA’s radar since April 9 when the agency received an anonymous complaint from a worker there.
“About half the plant is out sick,” a Maid-Rite worker reported, according to agency records. The plant was hiring more people “and not taking care of the problem,” the worker said. People were coming and going and getting sick, and the company was “not cleaning, not taking precautions of a pandemic illness.”
“I’m scared to go to work everyday,” the worker said, noting she was given a mask for the first time on April 9. “It’s sad and scary. I’m sorry.”
OSHA responded by writing a letter to Maid-Rite, which produces frozen meat products for schools and health care facilities. The agency asked the plant to look into the complaint and report back.
Within a week, the company sent a letter and supporting documents to OSHA, explaining that 6-foot physical distancing wasn’t possible on the production line, but it had given masks to its workers, staggered breaks and done deep cleanings at the facility.
With that, OSHA closed out the case.
More than a month later, the three Maid-Rite workers who filed suit against OSHA submitted their complaint to the agency.
In their communications with OSHA, the workers detailed how they labored so close together on the processing line that their elbows bumped and other workers stood 3 feet across from them.
They said that the company’s strict attendance policy — six absences and you’re out — remained in place during the pandemic, along with an attendance bonus, which public health experts say encourages people to work while sick.
The workers filed the complaint and lawsuit anonymously because they were concerned about retaliation from Maid-Rite, and they declined to speak to reporters.
Formal complaints like those from the Maid-Rite workers are meant to spur OSHA into action because they allege imminent danger at a job or a violation of workplace safety laws. OSHA typically responds by either conducting an inspection or notifying the worker to explain that their claim doesn’t qualify as a health and safety emergency.
In the case of Maid-Rite, the workers say OSHA did neither.
The agency instead sent another letter to the company explaining that it did not plan to do an on-site inspection and requesting the plant “immediately investigate the alleged concerns and make any necessary corrections or modifications.” Later, according to the lawsuit, it told the workers’ attorney by phone that it was not treating any COVID-19 complaints as imminent danger complaints.
The workers, through their attorneys, said that as of this week, the working conditions remain the same as when they first contacted OSHA two months ago.
“They hesitated to come forward because their job is a lifeline for them to support their families,” Chacko said. “There’s a lot of frustration that they took on what they see as a huge risk by coming forward and, so far, there have been no changes.”
Battling back transmission has been an ongoing challenge for the meat and poultry industry, where hundreds of workers debone chickens or pack ground hamburger side-by-side.
As the pandemic grew in scope, companies like Smithfield and Tyson installed plexiglass barriers and provided masks and face shields to workers.
But these measures haven’t stopped COVID-19...
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