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Pennsylvania Meatpackers Sue OSHA Citing Unsafe Working Conditions Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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Three Pennsylvania meatpacking workers filed a lawsuit against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) yesterday alleging the agency has failed to protect them from unsafe working conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic. The lawsuit, filed in Pennsylvania federal court, is an effort to force OSHA to take immediate action to protect workers, specifically those employed by the Maid-Rite Specialty Foods meatpacking company. The suit alleges Made-Rite’s failure to implement basic protections for workers amid COVID-19 has led to at least half of the company’s employees becoming infected with the virus.

The suit cites a lack of social distancing on the production line, inadequate hand-washing breaks, and a dearth of personal protective equipment among the issues that are endangering workers and must be addressed at the plant. Workers in the suit claim the company has blatantly and dangerously prioritized profits over workers’ health. The suit also alleges the company’s actions have placed workers in “imminent danger” amid the pandemic.

OSHA officials have yet to comment on the lawsuit, but since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the agency has indicated publicly it believes their recently updated guidelines, together with existing regulations, are sufficient to keep workers safe.

The meatpacking workers assert they, together with co-plaintiff Justice at Work — a nonprofit organization — have made numerous formal complaints directly to OSHA indicating the plant’s COVID-19 standards for its dozens of employees are inadequate. But the co-plaintiffs allege their complaints have gone unnoticed, and the company has taken no measures to improve the plant’s practices, even after the aforementioned “imminent danger” complaint was filed.

“Instead of recognizing the clear imminent danger posed by COVID-19 and Maid-Rite’s practices that exacerbate its spread, OSHA appears poised to ignore the facts in the imminent danger complaint and treat it as implicating only garden-variety workplace hazards that can be addressed by OSHA over the course of months,” the meatpacking workers said.

U.S. Secretary of Labor, Eugene Scalia, is also named as a defendant, given his department’s responsibility in overseeing OSHA. According to the complaint, Maid-Rite Specialty Foods is “privately owned and produces prepackaged frozen meat products for schools, universities, nursing homes and military bases.”

“Maid-Rite produces lunchroom meat under conditions that pose an imminent danger to the workers through the risk of death or serious harm from Maid-Rite’s failure to take basic precautions to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19 at the plant,” the workers said via the complaint. “Instead, perhaps in an effort to reduce its costs, Maid-Rite has adopted policies and practices that substantially increase the risks of spread of disease.”

Additionally, the workers said, “To state the obvious, Maid-Rite can alter these dangerous practices if it will simply assume the costs. For instance, workers on a meat production line can be spaced far enough to allow for safe social distancing if the company either reduces the line’s speed or places less meat on the line moving at the same speed.”

Moreover, the complaint alleges the company failed to “handle ill employees in a safe manner,” and did not “separate sick employees” or “inform all of those who worked closely with them when there were infections.” The complaint also accuses the company of providing workers with incentives to work while sick, specifically by offering bonuses to those who did not miss work.

According to the workers, “OSHA intends to allow Maid-Rite’s irresponsible practices to continue unabated, exposing workers to the ongoing imminent dangers of virus spread at the plant, every single day.”

Consequently, the workers are seeking an order that would force OSHA to conduct an on-site inspection and implement new COVID-19 protocols, while also addressing issues related to “inadequate personal protective equipment, including inadequate social distancing on production lines, insufficient opportunities to engage in personal hygiene, improper incentives to continue attending work when sick, and insufficient information about workers’ exposure to COVID-19 at the plant.”

The meatpacking workers are represented by attorneys Lerae Kroon, Nina Menniti, and Samuel Datlof of Friends of Farmworkers Inc. Representation is also provided by Public Justice PC, Towards Justice, and Nichols Kaster PLLP.

The Washington Post reported that two attorneys involved in filing the lawsuit — David Muraskin from the nonprofit organization, Public Justice, and David Seligman, executive director of the worker legal group, Towards Justice — indicated the case will “serve as another test of whether OSHA can be held accountable in court.”

“This is because of the federal government’s failure to step in here,” Seligman said. “We hope that the lawsuit spurs OSHA into action for these workers. Every day they go to work, they’re in imminent danger. If the virus were to enter the facility, there’s every reason to believe that it could cause death.”

OSHA and Made-Rite have not responded to requests for comment.