When the pandemic hit in March, a JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., began providing paid leave to workers at high risk of serious illness.
But last month, shortly after the plant was cited by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a serious virus-related safety violation and given two initial penalties totaling about $15,500, it brought the high-risk employees back to work.
"Now the company knows where the ceiling is," said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union local that represents the workers, about half a dozen of whom have died of covid-19. "If other workers die, it's not going to cost them that much."
JBS USA said the return of the vulnerable workers in late September had nothing to do with the citation. "It was in response to the low number of covid-19 cases at the facility for a sustained period of time," a spokesperson said, noting that the company began informing workers of the return in late July.
While OSHA has announced initial covid-related penalties totaling more than $1 million to dozens of health care facilities and nursing homes, it has announced fines for only two meatpacking plants. JBS and the owner of the second plant, Smithfield Foods, which was hit with a $13,494 penalty, combined to take in tens of billions of dollars worldwide last year.
The meat industry has gotten the relatively light touch even as the virus has infected thousands of its workers -- including more than 1,500 at the two facilities in question -- and dozens have died.
"The number of plants with outbreaks was enormous around the country," said David Michaels, an epidemiologist who headed the agency in the Barack Obama administration and now teaches at the George Washington University School of Public Health. "But most OSHA offices haven't yet issued any citations."
The disparity in the way OSHA has treated health care and meatpacking is no accident. In April, the agency announced that it would largely avoid inspecting workplaces in person outside a small number of industries deemed most susceptible to coronavirus outbreaks, like health care, nursing homes and emergency response.
Experts concede that with limited resources for inspections, OSHA, part of the Labor Department, must set priorities according to risk. Some, like Michaels, argue that this makes it more important to issue a rule instructing employers on the steps they must take to keep workers safe. But the agency chose instead to issue a set of recommendations, like 6 feet of distance between workers on a meat-processing line.
A Labor Department spokesperson said OSHA already had more general rules that "apply to protecting workers from the coronavirus."
Around the time of the recommendations, President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring meatpacking plants "critical infrastructure" to help ensure that they remained open during the pandemic.
The Labor Department has defended the penalties for JBS and Smithfield as the maximum allowed under the law for a single serious violation.
But Ann Rosenthal, who retired in 2018 as the Labor Department's top OSHA lawyer after working under administrations of both parties, said the agency could have cited each facility for multiple violations -- for different portions of the plant where there were hazards.