When historical accounts of the COVID-19 pandemic are written, a shockingly callous incident that occurred last spring a few hours from Minnesota's southern border is likely to be included.
As the nation sprang into action against the virus, the managers of a Waterloo, Iowa, meatpacking plant saw it as an opportunity for office fun and games. They wagered on how many employees would become infected with COVID, according to a legal complaint.
In mid-December, the plant's owner, Tyson Foods, announced that a review of that allegation had led to the "the termination of seven plant management employees."
Tyson is to be commended for taking strong, swift action. But the completion of what the company called its "Waterloo investigation" should mark the beginning, not the end, of efforts to scrutinize industry work practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple outbreaks occurred at meatpacking plants around the country, and more than 57,000 employees have been infected, according to the nonprofit Food and Environment Reporting Network.
In-depth and independent investigation is needed to understand how plants became COVID hot spots and how to better protect workers from future pathogens. South Carolina U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat, merits praise for energetically launching such an effort this month.
Clyburn chairs the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. The early, intense focus on the meat industry is understandable and appropriate. His state is home to many meatpacking plants, as is Minnesota. Spotlighting both industry failures and best practices will help safeguard employees and the communities they live in.
In a release, Clyburn's office said industry outbreaks have resulted in the deaths of more than 250 employees. He has sent strongly worded letters to three of the nation's largest meatpackers, demanding documents on COVID policies and practices. Among the requests: the documents and details that led to Tyson firing the seven Iowa employees.
Another tough letter went to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In it, Clyburn relays concerns that the agency failed to "adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths."
The shortcomings, Clyburn wrote, must be "swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans."
The focus on OSHA is welcome. Many industry employees are immigrants. Language barriers, low wages and the struggle to establish a new home in a new country may make them reluctant to challenge unsafe policies on the job. If OSHA or any other agency failed in its responsibility to these vulnerable workers, accountability is imperative.
It's regrettable that no member of Minnesota's House delegation is on the coronavirus select committee. But the state's representatives can still lend their clout to Clyburn's effort and should do so promptly to ensure workers here have the protections and respect they deserve.