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State issues coronavirus safety fine to Farmer John plant in Vernon

Workers exit the building at the Smithfield Foods-owned Farmer John plant in Vernon.
Workers exit the building at the Smithfield Foods-owned Farmer John plant in Vernon. The plant was fined.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health has fined a Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon, as well its temporary staffing agency, for failing to take adequate measures to protect workers from the coronavirus — a move that comes as the workplace safety agency ramps up such penalties against employers.

Cal/OSHA last week issued proposed penalties of $58,100 to Smithfield Foods, owner of the Farmer John plant, as well as $46,695 to CitiStaff Solutions. The companies can appeal the fines.

The violations stem from an investigation the agency opened in late May. State officials found that the companies had failed to provide or ensure the use of face coverings, lacked physical distancing on assembly lines and did not train employees on how the virus is spread and ways to avoid infection.

Officials also charged Smithfield Foods with failing to investigate approximately 300 cases of the virus, including at least three hospitalizations.

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In a statement, Smithfield Foods said it would “aggressively defend” itself against the citations. The company said that it investigates every coronavirus case among its employees and that “the agency has taken the surprising position that every single person working at the plant who contracted COVID-19 caught the virus at work.”

The shutdown of the Foster Farms plant this week due to coronavirus deaths exposes lapses in one of the most dangerous workplace sectors.

Furthermore, the company stated the state’s claim that it failed to report a coronavirus-related hospitalization from February “defies logic” because it would not have been able to conclude that early on a connection to COVID-19. It said that the citations alleging inadequate protections “relate back to time periods when no meaningful guidance on COVID-19 mitigation measures existed.”

“Smithfield procured and provided masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment early and aggressively and, without question, during the time period covered by the Cal/OSHA citation,” the company said. “The only way Cal/OSHA has issued these citations is based on a misguided use of hindsight.”

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CitiStaff Solutions did not respond to a request for comment.

During the pandemic, coronavirus outbreaks have hit meat processing plants across the country. In late May, L.A. County officials reported an outbreak at the Farmer John plant in which at least 153 of more than 1,800 employees tested positive. The company was among nine facilities in Vernon — including several meatpacking plants — that saw outbreaks.

Smithfield Foods said then it had increased its supply of masks and face shields, installed plexiglass barriers and implemented mass temperature scanning systems to screen workers.

Outbreaks in at least nine factories in Vernon spark concern that the disease could spread to nearby working-class heavily Latino cities.

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United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which represents workers at the plant, had called for its immediate closure, alleging that the company had delayed rolling out precautions until workers became sick and that it had not been transparent about how the virus had spread within the facility.

The union, which had filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA, said in a statement that workers at Farmer John have been urging more safety protections for months.

“Nothing Smithfield, nor local Farmer John management, has done has been in the interest of workers,” said UFCW Local 770 President John Grant. “The working conditions there have been horrific, and these citations show exactly what workers were exposed to every day they were on the job.”

The fines follow a slew of others that Cal/OSHA began to issue in late August for coronavirus-health violations. It has levied fines against several dozen employers, including Overhill Farms, a frozen food manufacturer in Vernon, in which it proposed penalties of $222,075 against the company and $214,080 against Jobsource North America, its temporary employment agency.

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L.A. County is working on ways to better monitor outbreaks at workplaces. Last week, county supervisors approved a program in which workers from certain sectors, including food manufacturing, will form public health councils to help ensure that employers follow coronavirus safety guidelines. The councils will pair with third-party organizations that will educate workers on health orders and help them report violations.


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