NBC4 I-Team

Largest COVID Workplace Outbreak Doubles in Size, Despite Safety Measures

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 -- which represents most of the workers there -- says more than half the plant has tested positive for the virus. 

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The LA area plant that makes the iconic "Dodger Dogs" is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19 that continues to multiply exponentially, according to LA County public health records examined by the NBC4 I-Team.

At least 779 workers at the Farmer John meat processing plant in Vernon have been infected with COVID. That's double the number of cases reported just six weeks ago. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 -- which represents most of the workers there -- says more than half the plant has tested positive for the virus. 

"In terms of a total company, a workplace, this is the worst," said Kathy Finn, secretary-treasurer of 770." "It's devastating," Finn told the I-Team.

The outbreak is devastating for Farmer John workers who believe they got the virus at work and then infected family members. Jose Guzman, a ten-year veteran of the plant, told the I-Team he believes he infected his wife.

"I feel terrible," Guzman told NBC4.  "Who's going to take care of us because my kids are all grown up?"

Back in May 2020, the plant's owner, Smithfield Foods, told the I-Team it put in place a long list of safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID, including installing plastic barriers on the production floor, improved PPE for workers, and increased social distancing "wherever possible."

But the UFCW's Kathy Finn says there's been "inconsistent enforcement" of those safety protocols.

Finn says her members tell her it's often impossible to keep six feet of distance in some areas of the plant, including the lunch rooms. The union gave the I-Team a photo of workers eating lunch, side by side, on the floor of the break room because it was crowded.  

"They either have to create more space for people to each lunch or stagger lunch in a better way," Finn says.

Last November, CAL/OSHA fined Smithfield Foods $58,100 for violations at the Farmer John plant -- observed on inspections from May to November -- saying the company "failed to take required steps to prevent COVID-19 infection in the workplace, such as safe physical distancing procedures or proper face covering usage for workers in production areas." 

Smithfield didn't respond directly to the I-Team's questions about the OSHA fines, or about the union's allegations about lack of enforcement of safety measures at the plant.

But in a statement to NBC4, Smithfield Chief Administrative Officer Keira Lombardo said, "We have taken our responsibility seriously, implementing extraordinary measures to protect the health and safety of our employee teams so that we can continue to produce food."

The statement also said "our company has been aggressive in both screening and testing – to identify and isolate the virus... Our testing is available on site and at no cost to employees."

Both Smithfield and the UFCW say getting their workers vaccinated is critical to preventing more infections. The Farmer John workers aren't eligible until LA County begins the next phase of vaccinations, which public health officials told NBC4, could be "in a couple of weeks when more vaccine becomes available to administer first doses." 

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Full statement from Keira Lombardo, Smithfield Chief Administrative Officer:

We have taken our responsibility seriously, implementing extraordinary measures to protect the health and safety of our employee teams so that we can continue to produce food.

To be clear, our company has been aggressive in both screening and testing – to identify and isolate the virus, often by identifying asymptomatic cases. We were a leader early in the pandemic in doing so. We have continued our aggressive testing efforts, in compliance with all prevailing health guidance and mandates. Our testing is available on site and at no cost to employees.

In the past 10 days, we have seen a very low number of positive cases within our employee family at the Vernon facility, and as a company we continue to see a lower incidence of positive cases relative to the community where we operate. This is the case in Vernon.

Like so many, we look forward to the availability of vaccines. Food and agriculture workers, alongside our nation’s health care workers and other first responders, are critical to the ongoing stability of society and this is why, across the nation, there is an awareness that food and agricultural workers are a high priority for the vaccine.

We are working with our health agency and medical partners to facilitate the distribution of the vaccine to food and agricultural workers once vaccines are available. We stand ready to assist, as possible, with vaccine distribution to workers in other essential categories and have communicated this. Additionally, we have assessed our storage capabilities and capacity and are ready and willing to assist health agencies if storage capacity becomes constrained.

We will give priority access to our frontline workers once vaccines are available. While we do not anticipate a mandate for employees, we are communicating with employees about the availability and efficacy of the vaccines. Every employee will be eligible to receive the vaccine at no cost.

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