Regulators sat on complaint as outbreak at Iowa plant grew

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Safety regulators declined to inspect an Iowa pork plant despite a complaint alleging workers were exposed to the coronavirus in crowded conditions — a decision that critics said allowed a burgeoning outbreak to grow unabated.

The April 11 complaint to the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration said employees at the Tyson Foods processing plant in Perry, Iowa, were spreading the virus as they worked “elbow to elbow.” The complaint alleged social distancing was near impossible in production areas and the cafeteria.

Workers and regulators had reason to be alarmed. The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction was idled days earlier due to an outbreak that infected hundreds of workers, and it had been rerouting hogs to Perry for slaughter. Other meat plants nationwide were reporting outbreaks and closures.

But Iowa OSHA took nine days to seek a response from Tyson, and it was eight more days before it heard back, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the open records law. The agency determined April 28 that Tyson’s voluntary efforts were “satisfactory” and closed the case without an inspection.

State Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Waterloo Democrat, said Monday that the agency’s handling of the complaint failed vulnerable workers who had to choose between risking their health and keeping their jobs.

“It’s shameful when you think about the amount of people that have become additionally infected,” Dotzler said. “They should have been in there and taken a look at what was going on, instead of asking an offender if they did something wrong.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds asserted April 17 that Iowa OSHA was being proactive in protecting meatpacking workers and that “all complaints are being investigated.”

She said Monday that she didn’t know how the Tyson complaint was handled but that state employees are working hard to protect residents.

“But, you know, there are times we fall short,” she said. “If that’s the case and we can do better, we’re going to do better.”

A week after OSHA closed its file, the Iowa Department of Public Health announced that 730 workers at the Perry plant had tested positive for the coronavirus — 58% of its 1,250 employees.

The failure to investigate showed “complete contempt” for workers and allowed the virus to spread, said Perry native Jorge Soto, 23, whose aunt became infected at the plant.

“I find it very disappointing,” said Soto, who started a Facebook page April 23 to advocate for workers in Perry and give them a platform to voice their concerns.

U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne demanded an investigation Monday into Iowa OSHA’s handling of the complaint. Axne, a Democrat, said she was “profoundly distressed” that the inquiry moved slowly, failed to uncover the outbreak and was quietly closed.

An aide to Iowa Commissioner of Labor Rod Roberts said the complaint was handled in accordance with interim federal guidance that said routine complaints of coronavirus exposure would “not normally result in an on-site inspection,” in part to protect inspectors.

An Iowa OSHA document listed the reason for not inspecting the Perry plant as “COVID-19.”

Nine days after receiving the complaint, an Iowa OSHA official called and wrote to Tyson requesting a response within a week, records show.

Plant manager Mike Grothe responded in a letter received April 28 that acknowledged social distancing was difficult but that Tyson was implementing “creative solutions,” including installing partitions to separate workers on the production line and supplying face masks beginning April 23.

Grothe’s letter didn’t mention that Tyson workers were summoned to the plant for mass testing April 25 or that it would suspend production that week while awaiting results. He repeated Tyson’s claim that it was “making every effort to ensure the safety of its team members and protect the country’s food supply.”

OSHA closed the matter the same day.

Tyson released a statement Monday saying it took action to protect workers before the complaint was filed.

“We began educating our team members about COVID-19 in February, started taking worker temperatures in March, encouraged workers to wear face coverings by early April and were installing workstation dividers in the plant by mid-April,” the statement said.