Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Three meatpacking workers sue OSHA, accuse government of not protecting essential workers from coronavirus

"Frustrated by the lack of response to their complaint of the 'imminent danger' posed by covid-19," three workers at the Maid-Rite Specialty Foods plant near Scranton, Pa., filed suit against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Bernice Yeung and Michael Grabell report for ProPublica. The suit "accuses the government of failing to protect essential workers from dangerous conditions that could expose them to the coronavirus. It relies on a rarely used provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act that allows workers to sue the secretary of labor for 'arbitrarily or capriciously' failing to counteract imminent dangers."

The three workers worked with Pennsylvania labor organization Justice at Work to help them file an anonymous complaint with OSHA May 19, saying they had only been given masks three times, and there was no social distancing on the production line or in restrooms where washed their hands, Yeung and Grabell report. Meatpacking plants have been infection hotbeds during the pandemic.

According to the lawsuit, two of the workers who filed suit have contracted covid-19, though ProPublica was not able to verify whether anyone at Maid-Rite has been infected, Yeung and Grabell report. An anonymous complaint to OSHA in April alleged that about half of the plant was out sick, and that the plant was simply hiring more people and not taking prevention or containment measures.

The lawsuit says the workers were filing suit because they could no longer wait for OSHA to act, and "argues that OSHA’s failure to respond effectively to workers’ covid-19 concerns is part of a larger pattern," Yeung and Grabell report.

A Labor Department spokesperson declined to comment to ProPublica, but wrote in an email that OSHA opened an inspection at Maid-Rite on June 2, has six months to complete it, and no further details will be made public until the inspection is complete, the spokesperson wrote.

"ProPublica has previously reported that despite receiving thousands of complaints, OSHA has not prioritized essential workers like meatpackers in its covid-19 enforcement efforts," Yeung and Grabell report. "Public health departments across the country have found themselves overwhelmed by the flood of cases linked to the meat industry, which has sometimes stymied the efforts of local officials to curb the spread of the virus."

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