State regulators have issued citations and fines of more than $100,000 against the owner of the Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon and a subcontractor related to 315 cases of the coronavirus contracted by workers at the plant.
Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, owner of Farmer John, was fined $58,000, and another $47,000 in fines were issued to CitiStaff Solutions Inc. last week.
The COVID-19 outbreak at Farmer John is the largest at any nonresidential facility in Los Angeles County. Thousands of pigs are trucked each week into the facility at 3049 E. Vernon Ave., where they are killed and turned into Dodger Dogs, as well as the ham, bacon, sausage and hot dogs sold under the Farmer John label.
Union representatives are claiming credit for sparking the investigation that led to the citations. United Food and Commercial Workers 770 filed complaints with the Division of Occupational Safety and Health of California in May, and called for the Farmer John plant to be shut down.
“In the absence of leadership from Smithfield, we have taken it on ourselves to call for safer working conditions and an investigation from Cal/OSHA,” said Jose Guzman, a worker at Farmer John.
“They’ve never taken our health seriously — we are disposable to them as long as their profits keep going up, and it’s no surprise to see this many citations given,” Guzman continued.
“Nothing Smithfield, nor local Farmer John management, has done has been in the interest of workers. Even back in May when cases spiked to 135 workers sickened with COVID-19, one of the worst outbreaks in Los Angeles County, they did not address safety concerns and they ignored recommendations and concerns from their own employees, instead the number has now risen to over 315,” said John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770. “The working conditions there have been horrific, and these citations show exactly what workers were exposed to every day they were on the job.”
But Smithfield says it has implemented stringent new health protocols to protect against the virus, and promised to appeal the citations.
A company spokesperson said Cal-OSHA “did not individually analyze how these individuals contracted COVID-19. Rather, the agency has taken the surprising position that every single person working at the plant who contracted COVID-19 caught the virus at work. The agency’s position completely rejects the clear evidence established by health experts that community spread exists.
“Smithfield diligently investigates every positive case among our workers, identifying every possible source of infection. We only wish Cal/OSHA had undertaken a similarly careful analysis, rather than jumping to the incomprehensible conclusion that any worker in the state who tests positive for COVID-19 must have been infected in the workplace,” the statement continued.
The company also takes issue with a citation that claims it should have should have reported an alleged COVID-19 hospitalization on Feb. 14, 2020, arguing that the full nature of the pandemic was not yet evident that early date.
“The final two COVID-19 citations generally relate to COVID-19 precautions — masks, barriers and social distancing,” Smithfield said. “As has now become typical from state and federal OSHA, these citations relate back to time periods when no meaningful guidance on COVID-19 mitigation measures existed. Smithfield procured and provided masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment early and aggressively and, without question, during the time period covered by the Cal/OSHA citation. Indeed, the citations cover the period of time when employers were specifically told not to require masks. The California government did not require masks at work until June and did not issue food industry guidance until July — long after Smithfield implemented mask requirements at all of its facilities.”
Among the measures Smithfield says it has put in place:
— Adopted a series of stringent and detailed processes, protocols and protective measures that follow and in some cases, exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for meat and poultry processing workers and employers;
— Boosted personal protective equipment (PPE) to include masks and face shields;
— Installed plexiglass and other physical barriers on the production floor and in break rooms;
— Implemented mass thermal scanning systems to identify employees with elevated temperatures prior to entering facilities;
— Made free voluntary COVID-19 testing available to employees;
— Increased social distancing wherever possible;
— Added abundant hand-sanitizing stations;
— Enhanced cleaning and disinfection;
— Explicitly instructing employees not to report to work if they are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms;
— Requiring that sick employees stay home and isolate according to CDC and OSHA guidelines;
— Paying employees, including any and all bonuses, when they are quarantined;
— Offering paid leave for all employees at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19;
— Expanded employee health benefits and removed all barriers in its health plan to access medical care, including eliminating co-pays for COVID-19-related testing and treatment;
— Educating all employees about how COVID-19 spreads and how to protect themselves and others;
— Posted employee communications in multiple languages;
— Deferred all nonessential business travel;
— Restricted all nonessential visitors.
In May, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered the county’s health department work with city officials in Vernon and union officials to investigate nine industrial facilities that have experienced outbreaks of the coronavirus, including Farmer John, to ensure that all nine facilities were in compliance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Cal-OSHA’s COVID-19 guidelines.