Pa. Meatpackers Sue OSHA To Compel COVID-19 Safety

By Craig Clough
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Law360 (July 23, 2020, 6:10 PM EDT) -- A group of workers filed suit in Pennsylvania federal court Wednesday seeking to compel the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take immediate action and force meatpacker Maid-Rite Specialty Foods to implement basic COVID-19 precautions after allegedly lax standards led to at least half the employees becoming infected.

A lack of social distancing on the production line, inadequate hand-washing breaks and protective equipment are among the problems at the plant, according to the workers, who said the company appears to have prioritized profits over its workers' health.

The workers and their co-plaintiff, the nonprofit Justice at Work, claim they have made formal complaints to OSHA about the plant's COVID-19 standards for its dozens of employees, but no substantial action has been taken to alter the plant's practices, even after an "imminent danger" complaint was filed.

"Instead of recognizing the clear imminent danger posed by COVID-19 and Maid-Rite's practices that exacerbate its spread, OSHA appears poised to ignore the facts in the imminent danger complaint and treat it as implicating only garden-variety workplace hazards that can be addressed by OSHA over the course of months," the workers said.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia is also named as a defendant, as his department oversees OSHA. Maid-Rite Specialty Foods is privately owned and produces prepackaged frozen meat products for schools, universities, nursing homes and military bases, according to the lawsuit.

"Maid-Rite produces lunchroom meat under conditions that pose an imminent danger to the workers through the risk of death or serious harm from Maid-Rite's failure to take basic precautions to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19 at the plant," the workers said. "Instead, perhaps in an effort to reduce its costs, Maid-Rite has adopted policies and practices that substantially increase the risks of spread of disease."

The workers added, "To state the obvious, Maid-Rite can alter these dangerous practices if it will simply assume the costs. For instance, workers on a meat production line can be spaced far enough to allow for safe social distancing if the company either reduces the line's speed or places less meat on the line moving at the same speed."

At least two formal complaints have been filed with OSHA by workers in recent months over COVID-19 precautions, according to the lawsuit, including an "imminent danger" complaint in May.

The workers claim the complaint met all of OSHA's standards for a formal imminent danger notice, as laid out by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires OSHA to either order an inspection or notify the employees of OSHA's determination that there are no reasonable grounds to believe that a violation or danger exists.

But OSHA has done neither, according to the workers, who also said the agency told them no COVID-19 complaints are deemed an "imminent danger. The workers added that "OSHA intends to allow Maid-Rite's irresponsible practices to continue unabated, exposing workers to the ongoing imminent dangers of virus spread at the plant, every single day."

The workers are seeking an order that OSHA conduct an on-site inspection and enforce new COVID-19 protocols while addressing the "inadequate personal protective equipment, including inadequate social distancing on production lines, insufficient opportunities to engage in personal hygiene, improper incentives to continue attending work when sick, and insufficient information about workers' exposure to COVID-19 at the plant."

OSHA, Maid-Rite and Justice at Work did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The workers are represented by Lerae Kroon, Nina Menniti and Samuel Datlof of Friends of Farmworkers Inc. and by Public Justice PC, Towards Justice and Nichols Kaster PLLP.

Counsel information for OSHA was not immediately available. 

The case is Jane Does I, II, III et al. v. Eugene Scalia et al., case number 3:20-cv-01260, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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