Most U.S. Firms Hit With COVID-19 Safety Fines Aren't Paying Up

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But about two-thirds of these employers aren’t paying up. Only 108 companies had paid a total of about $897,000 in fines as of last week to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since the pandemic hit the United States last year. Those who haven’t paid include meatpacking giants Smithfield Foods Inc and JBS USA - which had outbreaks infecting thousands of workers - as well as packaged foods company Conagra Brands Inc. All three firms have appealed the citations and say they are without merit. More than half of employers cited for COVID-19 safety problems by federal OSHA authorities have appealed, according to a Reuters analysis of OSHA enforcement data. That compares to 8% of fined companies that appealed in the five years before the pandemic, according to OSHA data. During the appeals - which can drag on for years - companies don’t have to pay fines and aren’t required to fix problems identified by OSHA inspectors. The payment delays follow the agency's larger failure to hold employers accountable for unsafe conditions during the pandemic, a Reuters special report revealed in January. Reuters identified dozens of workplaces where employees complained of slipshod pandemic safety around the time of outbreaks - and regulators never inspected the facilities or, in some cases, took months to do so. (For full story, click reut.rs/3jC2hQf ) Further, the payment delays involve relatively small fines - averaging about $13,000 - that are 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, said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration and advised President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force during the transition. “This is sending 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 is “taking a hard look at enforcement efforts related to COVID-19.” Frederick, a Biden appointee, pointed to new guidance OSHA issued to employers on infection control in January, following a White House executive order on pandemic worker safety. The agency is exploring the development of an emergency standard that could require masks and social distancing at workplaces, a move resisted by the administration of former President Donald Trump. Reuters examined citations issued by federal OSHA but not those issued by OSHA affiliates who handle enforcement in about half of states. Meatpacking giants JBS and Smithfield both argue that OSHA’s citations are baseless because the agency had not issued guidance to meatpacking companies on protecting 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 worker protections. OSHA says all companies have a “general duty” to protect workers from hazards including infection and that both companies failed to ensure a safe workplace. ‘POCKET CHANGE’ FINES OSHA fined JBS $15,615 in September for violations at its beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, where six workers died and 290 tested positive for coronavirus through the end of July. The same month, it levied a $13,494 fine on Smithfield for failing to protect workers at its pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where nearly 1,300 workers were infected and four died as of June. The companies’ appeals are pending before administrative judges at the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent agency that reviews contested OSHA citations. Worker advocates and family members of those who died at the plants are frustrated by what they call a lack of accountability for companies that exposed workers.

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