SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The union representing workers at the Smithfield Foods pork slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, says it is unhappy with a recently announced settlement between the company and federal officials over the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility in 2020.
The COVID-19 outbreak at the plant, one of the worst early outbreaks of the pandemic, killed four workers and sickened nearly 1,300, including hundreds of family members and other close contacts, and fueled a rising surge in the surrounding community.
On Monday, Nov. 15, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it had reached a settlement with Virginia-based Smithfield over a single citation issued for the outbreak, with the company agreeing to pay a $13,494 fine and make changes to its health and safety protocols.
“Our leaders have a responsibility to protect America’s frontline workers who have been bravely putting their lives at risk to keep our country’s food supply chain strong throughout this crisis," said B.J. Motley, president of the UFCW Local 304A, which represents workers at the Sioux Falls plant. "This deal is nothing more than a slap on the wrist for Smithfield and a deeply troubling betrayal of the men and women who have already sacrificed so much in this pandemic."
OSHA officials first announced the single citation and fine in September 2020, pointing out it was the maximum fine for the single violation it found at the plant: failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm.
Calling the outbreak "tragic" in a Monday statement announcing the settlement, OSHA Regional Administrator Jennifer Rous said, "We must ensure that all steps in the agreement are followed to prevent a mass outbreak from happening again.”
But the workers' union rejected OSHA's position that the settlement and agreed-to changes by Smithfield were sufficient.
“As the union for Sioux Falls Smithfield workers, UFCW Local 304A is disappointed that OSHA has failed to deliver the real accountability these South Dakota workers and their families deserve with meaningful action to strengthen worker safety protections," Motley said.
While Smithfield Foods agreed to the OSHA settlement, it continues to admit no wrongdoing in the matter. In an emailed statement, spokesman Jim Monroe characterized the decision to settle as more of a peacemaking measure with federal workplace safety officials.
"Settling with OSHA and avoiding litigation allows Smithfield to continue the good relations it has with the agency, as we have the shared goal of workplace safety," he said. "We are happy to put this behind us and have focused our resources on efforts to vaccinate our entire workforce."
Asked for comment on the union leader's remarks, Monroe described his company as "grateful for the hard work and dedication of its employees."
"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," he said.