(Reuters) – U.S. workplace safety officials have announced more than $ 4 million in penalties for more than 300 employers they say put workers at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But about two-thirds of these employers are not & # 39;
Only 108 companies paid a total of $ 897,000 in fines from last week to the Swedish Work Environment Authority since the pandemic hit the United States last year.
Those who have not paid include meat packing giants Smithfield Foods Inc. and JBS USA – which had outbreaks that infected thousands of workers – as well as packaged food company Conagra Brands Inc. All three companies have appealed the quotes, saying they are without merit.
More than half of the employers cited for COVID-1
Payment delays follow the agency's major failure to hold employers accountable for precarious conditions. during the pandemic revealed a Reuters special report in January. Reuters identified dozens of workplaces where employees complained about security pandemic safety at the time of the outbreak – and regulators never inspected the facilities or, in some cases, took months to do so. about $ 13,000 – it is not an effective deterrent, especially for large companies, five current and former OSHA officials told Reuters. Companies have so far had little to fear from regulators during the pandemic, says David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration and advised President Joe Biden's COVID-19 working group during the transition.
"This sends a message," said Michaels, who is now a professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health. "It's just sending the wrong message."
James Frederick, acting head of OSHA, did not directly address Reuters' findings but said the agency "looks closely at COVID-19 enforcement efforts."
Mr. Frederick, a Biden nominee, pointed to new guidance issued by OSHA to employers on infection control in January, following a White House executive order on the safety of pandemic workers. The agency is investigating the development of an emergency standard that may require masks and social distancing in the workplace, a move opposed by former President Donald Trump's administration.
Reuters reviewed citations from federal OSHA but not those issued by OSHA affiliates that deal with enforcement in about half of the states.
Meatpacking giants JBS and Smithfield both claim that OSHA's quotes are unfounded because the agency did not issue instructions to meat packaging companies to protect workers from the virus at the time of the alleged violations in March. The companies said they did their best in the absence of clear standards and have since improved labor protection.
OSHA states that all companies have a "general obligation" to protect workers from risks including infection and that both companies failed to ensure a safe workplace.
"Pocket change" fine
OSHA fined JBS $ 15,615 in September for violations at its beef factory in Greeley, Colorado, where six workers died and 290 tested positive for coronavirus in late July. . That same month, it imposed a $ 13,494 fine on Smithfield for failing to protect workers at its pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where nearly 1,300 workers were infected and four died in June.
Corporate appeals are pending before administrative judges of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent authority that reviews questioned OSHA citations.
Workers and family members of those who died at the facilities are frustrated by what they call a lack of accountability for companies that exposed workers
"$ 15,000 is pocket money for them," said Betty Rangel, whose father, Saul Sanchez, worked at the JBS Greeley plant and died of COVID-19 in April. "My dad's funeral was $ 22,000."
Many companies are fighting the relatively small fines because acknowledging infringements can open a company to more expensive workers' claims or wrongful deaths, says John Ho, a lawyer at the law firm Cozen O & # 39; Connor who has defended corporate clients against OSHA and fought corporate appeals. as a lawyer for the employment department. The violations can also complicate companies' efforts to secure government contracts.
"It will hit rock bottom, in many cases, very significantly," says Ho, who is not involved in the cases described in this article.
Kim Cordova, chair of the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union representing JBS workers, said the long appeals and small fines create "a culture where people will not speak up."
"Workers throw up their hands and think there is nothing they can do," said Cordova.
OSHA's directive for JBS to address workplace risks is pending appeal. OSHA ordered in September JBS to enforce social distancing, to screen employees for symptoms, and to work with local authorities to track contact to identify exposed workers.
In a statement, JBS said its workplace safety measures provide more protection than OSHA has
In recent months, COVID-19 cases began to climb again at the JBS Greeley plant, with nearly 100 infections identified since mid-November, according to government outbreak data.
Anthony Martinez, a meat cutter at the plant, said he and others employees work so closely together that he "can smell the guy's breath next to me" through their masks.
Delayed safety measures
OSHA has quotes at hospitals and other medical facilities operated by Hackensack Meridian Health 15 times since September, which fines more than $ 250,000 for problems including an alleged lack of protective equipment and a failure to ensure that masks fit properly on nurses working with h COVID-19 patients.
OSHA required New Jersey facilities to document how they addressed the issues with the protective equipment. But the company appeals all quotes and leaves employees facing the same precarious conditions, says Debbie White, union representative who represents medical staff at several of the company's facilities.
"It is clear that they are not working to improve security. of their working conditions, ”said White, of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union.
Hackensack Meridian Health said in a written statement that no corrective action was needed as worker safety was never compromised. The company said it has plenty of protective equipment and trains staff properly in mask wearing.
In November, after the company appealed many citations, workers at several Hackensack Meridian hospitals began noticing that managers gave nurses what appeared to be low-quality N95 masks, without proper labeling. Kendra McCann, a registered nurse at Hackensack Meridian & # 39 ;s Jersey Shore University Medical Center, said staff could not get a protective seal around her face. Management dismissed their concerns, she said.
"They get fined and they just keep going," McCann said.
A few weeks after managers provided alleged defective masks, there was a sharp rise in COVID -19 cases among staff, according to the union, which has filed a complaint with OSHA that the masks are known to be counterfeit.
Hackensack Meridian said it was investigating staff concerns about the masks.
Only about one-third of companies have paid their pandemic-related OSHA fines – and more than 80% of those who paid saw their fines reduced in settlement with the agency. A Reuters review of OSHA's infringement data shows that reduced COVID-19 fines dropped an average of 46% to $ 7,411, from an initial average of $ 13,760.
Among the companies that have negotiated lower sanctions are the owners of Andover Subacute & Rehabilitation Homes in New Jersey. Andover made national headlines in April when local police found 17 bodies stored in a makeshift mortuary at one of the facilities following a COVID-19 outbreak. The New Jersey Attorney General is investigating Andover along with other nursing homes that had a large number of COVID-related deaths and a bad history in health inspections.
Representatives of the owners of the healthcare facilities, Alliance Healthcare, did not respond.
OSHA initially fined Andover $ 22,555 and $ 16,504 in October for failing to protect staff. But the agency reduced the fine to $ 17,000 and $ 13,000, respectively, after a settlement.
By comparison, another agency, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, imposed a much larger fine – $ 220,000 – after its inspection of one by Andover. facilities found inadequate staff training and poor infection control.
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