Meatpacking Workers Claim OSHA Failed to Address ‘Imminent Dangers’ at Pennsylvania Plant

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., left, elbow bumps Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia on June 9. Three meatpacking workers are asking a court to compel Scalia to address alleged dangers at a Pennsylvania plant. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — Three anonymous meatpackers accuse the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in a federal complaint of failing to take action against a Pennsylvania meatpacking plant that is not providing workers with proper Covid-19 protections. 

The plaintiffs, represented by Justice at Work attorney Lerae Kroon, are employees of a Maid-Rite Specialty Foods plant just near Scranton in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, that produces frozen lunch meat products for schools, nursing homes and military cafeterias. 

Two of the three workers have contracted Covid-19 and believe they did so working at the plant, Kroon confirmed Thursday in a call. The complaint says the workers estimate that as many as half of all the plants workers “have already contracted” Covid-19.

Their suit, filed Wednesday in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, asks the U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia to seek a court order to alleviate imminent dangers posed by the plant’s alleged failure to take “the most basic precautions.”

“Our clients have been going to work for the past four months worrying for their health and safety and the health and safety of their families every day,” Kroon said. “They’ve tried to take every action they could. They filed this suit because they don’t see any other option to keep them and their families safe as they continue to go to work.”

According to the complaint, “perhaps in an effort to reduce its costs,” the plant’s policies and practices increase workers’ risk of spreading and contracting Covid-19. 

The anonymous plaintiffs say the plant forces meatpackers to work shoulder to shoulder in production lines “sometimes touching elbows,” has not provided workers with cloth face coverings, and has not allowed more breaks for hand-washing over the course of workers regular eight-and-a-half hour shifts. 

During their shifts, “the workers are able to wash or sanitize their hands only during their three breaks during the workday, one of which is their lunch break,” the suit alleges.

The 49-page complaint further accuses Maid-Rite of “creating incentives for workers to attend work sick, failing to inform workers of potential exposures to Covid-19, and rotating-in workers from other facilities in a way that increases the risk of spreading the virus.”

“Maid-Rite … continues to follow its pre-pandemic policy of issuing workers disciplinary points for calling out sick. Under the company’s point system for disciplining workers, if a worker accrues more than six points, he or she may be subject to termination,” the suit states.

The first Maid-Rite plant worker to complain to OSHA about these conditions, who is not a plaintiff in this suit, did so in early April. 

“About half the plant is out sick they hire more people and not taking care of the problem people and not taking care of the problem people keep coming n going getting sick there not cleaning not taking precautions of a pandemic illness I’m scared to go to work everyday I’m risking my life today on april 9 I was givin a mask for the first time it’s sad and scary I’m sorry,” the worker wrote. 

Area director for OSHA Mark Stelmack dismissed this complaint after requesting Maid-Rite “make any necessary corrections or modifications” needed to protect workers. “OSHA does not intend to conduct an on-site inspection in response to the subject complaint at this time,” he added.

OSHA received another complaint from workers in May, in which the anonymous plaintiffs in the new suit said they were facing “imminent danger” in the workplace due to the lack of Covid-19 precautions. 

David Muraskin, litigation director of the Public Justice Food Project and an attorney in the case. said in a statement Thursday that the conditions definitely should be considered an “imminent danger” to workers. 

“It is time for federal government officials charged with protecting citizens from indifferent bosses to listen to what these meat processing workers are telling them,” said Muraskin. “Secretary Scalia has repeatedly made a mockery of federal labor law, but the notion that he will allow Maid-Rite to treat food chain workers as sacrificial, rather than essential, is beyond the pale.”

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA workers should have made an inspection in response to the complaint or sent back a note explaining why they didn’t think the plant warranted one. It has not yet done so, despite repeated follow-ups from plaintiffs. 

Loren Sweatt, principal deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, previously said before Congress in May that the agency would increase in-person inspections and enforcement of workplace coronavirus case reporting in light of the pandemic.

“As far as we know, they have not gone into the worksite to see what the plant is actually doing,” Kroon said. “An inspection is the only way, aside from speaking and talking with workers, to see what’s going on the ground.” 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report estimates that between April and May of 2020, there were 16,233 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in meatpacking plants across the country in around 239 facilities. Of these cases, 87% occurred in “racial or ethnic minorities” the report found. Likewise, Kroon said that a high percentage of Maid Rite’s workers are “people of color, immigrants, and other disproportionately affected groups.” 

“The ideal end result of this case would be that the court order OSHA to take immediate steps to protect the workers in the plant,” Kroon said. 

Neither OSHA or Maid-Rite officials immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday.

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