Of the more than 300 employers who have accrued safety penalties during the coronavirus pandemic, only about one-third have paid, according to an investigation by Reuters.
The analysis found only 108 employers cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had paid the fines, for a total of about $897,000. The analysis found the majority of companies receiving OSHA citations have appealed, compared to about 8 percent that appealed in the five years preceding the pandemic.
The appeals process can take years, and companies are not responsible for either the fines or fixing the alleged problems during the process.
Current and former OSHA officials told Reuters enforcement of the fines has largely been toothless and that the delayed fines involve amounts averaging about $13,000.
“This is sending a message,” Obama-era OSHA head David Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University’s school of public health, told Reuters. “It’s just sending the wrong message.”
Employers who have yet to pay their fines and are currently appealing them include packaged foods firm Conagra and meatpacking companies JBS USA and Smithfield Foods. The latter two had major coronavirus outbreaks among workers during the pandemic, along with much of the rest of the industry.
Smithfield and JBS have said the penalties are baseless because there was no clear OSHA guidance for the meatpacking industry on worker protections in March, when the agency said the violations occurred. The agency levied a $15,615 fine on JBS in September and a $13,494 fine on Smithfield the same month.
Acting OSHA head James Frederick told Reuters the agency is “taking a hard look at enforcement efforts related to COVID-19” under the Biden administration, pointing to infection control guidance it issued to employers last month.
OSHA is also assessing whether to issue an emergency standard that would require precautions like social distancing and masks in workplaces.