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State issues largest COVID-19 safety fine to Overhill Farms in Vernon

Overhill Farms workers take part in a memorial in downtown Los Angeles to honor those who have died of COVID-19.
Overhill Farms workers take part in an Aug. 31 memorial ceremony in front of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles to honor those who have died of COVID-19.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health has issued its largest fine for coronavirus health violations to a frozen food manufacturer in Vernon, as well as the company’s temporary employment agency for failing to take adequate steps to protect hundreds of workers from the virus.

Cal/OSHA announced proposed penalties of $222,075 for Overhill Farms and $214,080 for Jobsource North America, which the companies can appeal. In a statement Wednesday, the agency said that both companies had failed to install barriers, ensure that workers practiced physical distancing and train employees on the dangers of the virus.

The move followed the first fines announced for coronavirus safety violations last week. Cal/OSHA cited 11 employers in industries that included food processing, retail, agriculture, meatpacking and healthcare, and proposed penalties ranging from $2,025 to $51,190.

“It is critical that employers evaluate the workplace and take proactive measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace,” Chief Doug Parker said in a statement. “If a COVID-19 illness occurs, employers must investigate the case to determine if additional protective measures should be taken and report the serious illnesses and deaths to Cal/OSHA.”

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Overhill Farms said Thursday that it would contest the agency’s “erroneous” allegations, adding that Cal/OSHA has falsely claimed that the company failed to install Plexiglas dividers.

“The health and safety of our employees is our first priority,” the company said in a statement. “Overhill Farms has not only taken steps in line with the constantly evolving federal, state and local guidance, we have gone above and beyond those recommendations as we developed our employee safety procedures.”

Officials with Jobsource said they also planned to dispute the citations.

“We take the health and safety of all of our team members very seriously and we believe that we have not done anything that would endanger anyone in our community,” the company said in a statement.

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Cal/OSHA opened inspections into Overhill Farms and Jobsource in late April in response to complaints about coronavirus safety hazards. After visits to two facilities in Vernon, inspectors found inadequate social distancing between workers, including when they clocked in and out of their shifts, in the breakroom, on the conveyor line and during packing operations.

Officials also charged the companies with not investigating more than 20 cases of the coronavirus among employees as well as the death of one Overhill Farms worker who had contracted COVID-19.

Kathy Finn, the secretary-treasurer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which represents several hundred workers at Overhill Farms, said she hoped the citation would send a message to other workplaces.

“We’re really happy that the state finally took some action for the egregious violations that Overhill committed,” she said. “It’s been six months, and they’ve been working under horrendous conditions.”

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In addition to the penalties related to coronavirus safety measures, Cal/OSHA issued citations this week to both employers related to accidents in which two workers had their hands caught in machinery in February. Those included $103,780 in proposed fines to Overhill Farms and $29,700 to Jobsource.


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