What is the value of a meat industry employee? If you treat each one as a number on a human-resources spreadsheet, you’d probably say about $15 an hour, depending on where you are in the country or their job responsibilities. I’d like to think the industry thinks beyond an HR number and sees that there’s so much more to an employee than their ability to go in day after day and do their job. They are a spouse, a parent, a friend, a relative. They work for 40 to 60 hours a week to live the rest of the time. You can put a value on a person’s work with a salary, but can you put a price on their life?
The Department of Labor recently issued a series of statements announcing citations against companies that failed to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus. Two meat processing plants were cited, which led to some outcry within the industry. Let’s take a look into it.
Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. of Sioux Falls, S.D., was cited by OSHA, which proposed a fine of $13,494, the maximum allowed by law. OSHA cited the company for one violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm. At least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted coronavirus, and four employees died from the virus.
JBS Foods of Greeley, Colo., was likewise cited by OSHA, which proposed $15,615 in penalties. OSHA cited the company for a violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm. The penalty assessed for the general duty clause violation is the maximum allowed by law. The company also failed to provide an authorized employee representative with injury and illness logs in a timely manner following OSHA’s May 2020 inspection. OSHA’s announcement did not list the number of employees who were sickened by the virus in the Greeley facility, but the Denver Post reported 290 confirmed employee cases to date, three probable cases and the six reported deaths of plant employees.
These fines are the first actions taken against meat-processing plants for their treatment of employees during the pandemic. The Labor Department did not pick on just the meat industry, though. Three health-care facilities in Louisiana and New Jersey were also cited within the past week, with proposed fines between $9,649 and $28,070.
Not surprisingly, the subject of debate has been the amount of the fines doled out. Some have complained it was too much, and others complained it was not enough. Considering the sales figures of both companies from our 2020 Top 100 Report, the fines are mere pocket change — both companies would have made enough money to pay the fines in the time it took you to get to this sentence from the start of this article.
However, look at the amounts in a different way — how those fines perceive employee value. Assuming the number of cases listed above is true, the Smithfield fine breaks down to $10.43 per sickened employee. The JBS fine amounts to $53.84 per person.
What’s the value of a meat industry employee’s life? According to the Department of Labor, it’s somewhere between dinner at a fast-casual restaurant and a grocery store trip. Furthermore, it’s likely those fines will be appealed and lowered. At that point, the value of a human life becomes equivalent to a grande latte or even less.
Yes, the industry could argue that there are extenuating circumstances in this pandemic and legitimate reasons why a company would combat what it feels is an unfair fine. Industry associations have pointed to some conflicts in the timelines of these cases that would normally merit a review. But I believe perspective has been totally lost here.
In this instance, when your employees have been sickened, some may be recovering still, and some have even died, spending more money on lawyers’ fees than you would on the original fine is a bad look. What does that say to your remaining employees? They’ve already been informed by a government agency that their health and well-being is worth an amount you could find in petty cash. How much would fighting these relatively modest fines further deteriorate employee morale? The meat and poultry industry already fights an uphill battle in terms of work conditions — why make it even worse in a higher-profile way?
So, what’s the value of an employee’s life? Is it a yearly salary, an OSHA fine, or something that you can’t possibly calculate?
Pay the fine, drop the appeals and use those lawyers’ fees and all that effort to protect your employees, because the pandemic isn’t over — and even once it is, the next threat sits in the shadows.
Your employees are counting on you.
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