Last May, when a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team visited the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma, it found workers couldn’t space out in the cafeteria.
The plastic barriers in place were too small to protect them as they ate, unmasked, in close quarters. The agency recommended marking off seats to promote social distancing and adding fans or heaters to tents to encourage dining outside.
Eleven months later, workers still can’t escape each other.
“Everywhere is crowded,” Seaboard Foods employee Teaira Grant said Wednesday. “No matter where you go, it’s crowded.”
Despite more than a thousand coronavirus cases and several deaths among employees, the federal agency responsible for worker safety has not inspected the plant. Frustrated by a lack of oversight, the union representing Seaboard Foods workers filed a complaint Monday with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
“Seaboard has relaxed the protocols and their plan without taking into consideration the safety and the wellbeing of their workers,” said Martin Rosas, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 2, which represents Seaboard Foods employees.
With 1,014 current and former employees testing positive, the Seaboard Foods plant has had one of the largest outbreaks in the meatpacking industry. Six workers have died, the plant said.
Since the pandemic started, more than 50,000 workers have been infected with coronavirus and at least 248 have died, according to Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracking.
A Seaboard Foods spokesman defended the plant’s response to the pandemic.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our communities, Seaboard Foods continues to adapt to ensure our Guymon, Oklahoma, pork processing plant remains a safe place to work while producing much-needed food for tables across our communities and the country,” he said in an email.
Seaboard Foods is the second-largest pork producer in the U.S, according to the company website. The company is business partners with Triumph Foods, a company USA TODAY and the Midwest Center found was slow to implement worker safety measures.
According to the union’s complaint filed Monday, Seaboard Foods failed to enforce social distancing and quarantine procedures, penalized workers for taking sick leave, and excluded at least four other languages regularly spoken in the plant from COVID-19-related posters and training. Also, Seaboard Foods did not report hundreds of cases to federal authorities.
Employers must report confirmed cases to OSHA if the employee was infected at work. But Rosas said the company reported less than one percent of the cases.
Companies in industries with a history of high injury rates, such as meatpacking plants, must report illness and injury data to OSHA. When Rosas requested the Seaboard Foods data, he saw only five coronavirus cases were documented.
“Somehow, Seaboard feels those cases are not related to the plant,” Rosas said.
A Seaboard Foods spokesman said in an email that the company follows OSHA’s “established standards for recording and reporting workplace illnesses and its guidance specifically related to determining whether employee cases of confirmed positive COVID-19 diagnoses are work related.”
The company also did not report the six deaths because they didn’t consider them work-related, the spokesman said.
Last year, one worker left the plant for medical reasons, but the company told him he needed to return if he wanted his health insurance, Rosas said. After returning, he tested positive and died “within days” in October, he said.
Rosas filed the complaint in hopes it would prompt an investigation. OSHA visited the plant once last summer, but the inspection was not related to COVID-19.
It wasn’t an uncommon situation last year. OSHA has not investigated many COVID-19 deaths tied to meatpacking plants.
Another issue the union identified involved the posters around the plant set up to remind workers about how to keep themselves safe during the pandemic.
When he visited the plant Monday, Rosas observed that most of the posters related to coronavirus mitigation were written in English. In addition to a large Spanish-speaking population, many employees immigrated from Myanmar, South Sudan and Ethiopia, he said.
Grant said she’s seen information available in English and Spanish in the plant, but those who speak neither language “aren’t going to understand what’s going on.”
The Seaboard Foods spokesman said the company has posted contact information for the plant’s COVID-19 Coordinator in several places around the facility in the languages “commonly spoken in the plant.” He also said interpretation is provided to employees upon request.
Across the country, minority meatpacking workers have suffered the most from the virus. As of July, 87% of all cases in meatpacking plants have occurred among racial or ethnic minorities, according to a CDC study.
Also, according to the complaint, Seaboard Foods did not modify its sick leave policies so workers were penalized for taking time off or quarantining.
The company said employees can get up to two weeks paid leave if they or a household member has been directed to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 symptoms.
Grant, the plant worker, said that wasn’t her experience.
When her roommate tested positive for coronavirus, Grant went straight to the doctor to get tested herself.
Her results were negative, but the doctor instructed her to isolate for three days, then get tested again. She paid for a hotel room and called out of work at Seaboard Foods, telling them she’d been instructed to quarantine.
Management asked her to come back anyway, Grant said.
They gave her the three days off, but she didn’t get paid, she said. On the third day, she tested negative again and went back to work.
“I’m not trying to get nobody sick around me,” she said.