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Following coronavirus outbreaks, Vernon faces county pressure to protect its workers

The Smithfield Foods-owned Farmer John plant in Vernon on May 29.
The Smithfield Foods-owned Farmer John plant in Vernon on May 29.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Responding to coronavirus outbreaks plaguing the industrial city of Vernon, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday asked local health officials to do more to protect the small town’s workers, many of whom live in surrounding working-class communities.

Supervisor Hilda Solis introduced an order requesting that the Los Angeles County Health Department work with Vernon officials and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health to recommend safety measures.

The largest outbreak happened at the Smithfield Foods-owned Farmer John pork-processing plant, where more than 150 of 1,837 employees tested positive for COVID-19 between March and June. Eight other Vernon facilities experienced outbreaks, for a total of more than 200 known infections in the city.

Vernon has only about 200 residents but its approximately 2,000 businesses employ 54,000 people, according to the county. The majority of workers live in southeast L.A. County cities, such as Huntington Park, Bell, Cudahy and South Gate.

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The order comes after a June 2 report requested by Solis found that of 165 sick employees at Vernon plants, 157 of them live in cities under the county’s jurisdiction and two live in Long Beach. The report also noted that, before June 15, Vernon’s health department was the only one in the state to not have a physician in a health officer role.

Because the majority of infected workers live in working-class, heavily Latino communities, which are already disproportionately affected by COVID-19, “further protections and safety measures are needed to ensure our residents and workers at industrial facilities, and other businesses in Vernon, including factories and plants are protected,” Solis said in the motion.

The motion requests that CAL/OSHA and Vernon officials identify strategies that ensure workers are being properly informed about the resources available to them and that a “standardized notification protocol” be established or improved. The county expects a report of findings and recommendations within two weeks, according to the motion.

Times staff writer Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.


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