OSHA Failed These Meatpacking Workers — And Now They’re Suing Agency

 

Bernice Yeung and Michael Grabell, ProPublica

via National Memo - Jul 27, 2020

 

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...

 

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