With meat packers facing high COVID-19 rates, where were the feds? Investigating, it seems. Now regulators have slapped fines on two meatpacking plants and triggered a fresh round of finger-pointing over worker safety amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington Post reports. Levied this week, fines against a JBS plant in Colorado and a Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota total about $29,000—a pittance, some say, for companies that rake in billions of dollars in revenue per year. "These tiny fines are nothing to [meat plant owners]," says Kim Cordova, president of the UFCW Local 7 for JBS workers. "They give an incentive to make these workers work faster and harder in the most unsafe working conditions imaginable."
But JBS and Smithfield pushed back, saying they had to sort out worker safety on their own. "We took extraordinary measures ... to keep our employees as healthy and safe as possible," a Smithfield rep told CBS News. Now the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which calls its six-month probe "exhaustive," is telling both companies to increase social distancing or put up barriers between workers. But JBS and Smithfield have already opposed social-distancing measures and quarantines that kept workers at home—and increased the pressure on those who did show up, the AP reports. Meanwhile, the Food Environmental Reporting Network estimates that COVID-19 has infected at least 42,534 meatpacking workers and killed at least 203 across 494 plants. (By one estimate, some 56% of infected workers are Latino.)