SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Smithfield Foods $13,494 for failing to protect employees at its Sioux Falls meatpacking plant from exposure to COVID-19, OSHA announced Thursday, Sept. 10, and both the company and the union that represents plant works are objecting to the decision.

The workplace safety agency said the Smithfield fine was the maximum allowed by law for the single violation it found at the plant, which for a time was one of the largest COVID-19 hotspots in the nation. OSHA cited the company for one violation of failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm.

A COVID-19 outbreak at the plant in March and April sickened 1,294 employees and killed four, OSHA said. It also sickened hundreds of family members and other close contacts to workers.

“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley said in a news release. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”

The OSHA fine is "wholly without merit" and Smithfield Foods will contest it, said Keira Lombardo, the Virginia-based company's executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance.

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"After an investigation that spanned many months and encompassed the review of over 20,000 pages of documents and 60 interviews, OSHA has issued only a singular citation under its catchall 'general duty clause' for conditions that existed on and prior to March 23," she said in an emailed statement. "This is notable because OSHA did not issue guidelines for the meatpacking industry until April 26."

The company took "extraordinary measures" to keep its employees safe on its own initiative, she said, even as "the Sioux Falls community experienced an early spike in COVID-19 cases, which impacted our plant."

The union that represents workers at the Sioux Falls plant also expressed strong disapproval of OSHA's decision to levy only a single citation.

“How much is the health, safety, and life of an essential worker worth? Based on the actions of the Trump Administration, clearly not much," March Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in an emailed statement. "This so-called ‘fine’ is a slap on the wrist for Smithfield, and a slap in the face of the thousands of American meatpacking workers who have been putting their lives on the line to help feed America since the beginning of this pandemic."

Perrone called on the federal government to create an enforceable safety standard, do rigorous proactive inspections and increase supplies of protective gear and COVID-19 testing, and said OSHA had been "asleep at the switch throughout this entire pandemic."

“Smithfield is a multi-billion-dollar corporation that failed to protect its workers, with multiple deaths and more than a thousand infections on their watch," he said. "This response by OSHA confirms that the company will not face any real consequences."

OSHA launched an investigation into conditions at the plant in April. The facility employs about 3,700 people and handles about 5% of the nation's pork supply.

The first case among Smithfield workers in Sioux Falls was reported to the state on March 24. As workers began to fall sick in late March, many workers complained they didn't have the protective equipment they needed to avoid catching the illness at their workplace, and said they were afraid to go to work.

Smithfield has said it did its best to get protective gear to its workers despite a nationwide shortage, and called "flat out wrong" any reports of a divide between the company and its employees. But the company shuttered the plant for several weeks in mid-April, after local and state officials insisted the company do so due to the ongoing outbreak.

The company reopened the Sioux Falls plant after a visit from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Team, which issued recommendations to improve worker safety. The state also held a mass-testing event in early May for any Smithfield workers, family members and other close contacts.

The plant also became the site of a joint investigation between state and federal health agencies as a case study of COVID-19 spread among a large workplace. The results from that study haven't been released, but its existence sparked a legal fight between OSHA and Smithfield Foods in July.

OSHA had been seeking materials gathered in the state-federal joint investigation and Smithfield asked a court to block the agency's access, citing employee privacy concerns.

The company later dropped the lawsuit, saying it had reached an agreement with OSHA over the matter and no longer had concerns its employees' privacy would be threatened. OSHA still got the documents it sought, according to Ron Parsons, U.S. attorney for South Dakota.