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Butchers cutting beef in a slaughterhouse while wearing face masks. (Photo: Getty Images/Stock)

"Want to Know What a Worker's Life Is Worth in America?" Trump's OSHA Fines Meat Company Just $13,494 for Infecting 1,294 Employees With Covid

"$13,494 is a bug splat on the windshield for this massive company, apparently just like those workers' lives were."

Jake Johnson

The Trump Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday announced a fine of just $13,494 against a major meat processing company whose persistent and egregious failure to protect South Dakota factory employees from Covid-19 caused at least 1,294 infections, 43 hospitalizations, and four deaths.

"Want to know what a worker's life is worth in America?" HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson tweeted in response to the meager fine against Smithfield Foods, whose Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant was in April dubbed "the country's biggest coronavirus hot spot."

The fine against Smithfield amounts to around $10 per infected employee, a penalty the Democrat-controlled House Committee on Education and Labor denounced as "a total failure to protect workers."

As Jamieson pointed out, "$13,494 is the maximum OSHA can issue for a 'serious' violation. The max for a 'willful' or 'repeated' violation is $134,937. Of course, those amounts are rounding errors for a company of Smithfield's size."

"Many companies routinely fight OSHA citations even when the fines are this small, with the litigation dragging on for years," Jamieson noted. "Decent chance the final tab gets negotiated down or wiped out entirely."

Matt Pearce, national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, tweeted that "$13,494 is a bug splat on the windshield for this massive company, apparently just like those workers' lives were."

The Labor Department's fine is the product of a months-long investigation into Smithfield, which attempted in July to quash an OSHA subpoena for the company's Covid-19 test results, characterizing the document request as an invasion of privacy and violation of the company's due process rights.

The meat processing giant has come under fire from workers and union leaders for failing to swiftly establish adequate safety precautions at its Sioux Falls plant, which at one point in April accounted for 44% of all of South Dakota's positive coronavirus cases. That same month, Smithfield offered Sioux Fall employees a $500 "responsibility bonus" for showing up to work amid growing health concerns.

"I feel like they're bribing us with money to come to work sick," one unnamed worker told the local Argus Leader. "That's how you know they don't care, because they're forcing people to come to work. People are forcing themselves to come to work even when they're sick."

Kooper Caraway, president of the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO, blamed the deadly Covid-19 outbreak at the South Dakota pork factory on the inaction of Smithfield management in the face of pleas for stronger protections.

"Because management drug its feet and didn't act quickly, that's why it's a hot spot," Caraway said in April. "And we're seeing the cases go up every day. No matter what the latest numbers are, I promise you there's more than that."

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