Maid-Rite Workers Argue That Court Must Adjudicate COVID-19 Workplace Safety Case

Meatpacking worker advocates have told a federal court that their fight against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over its failure to protect workers from unsafe conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic is not moot, as the federal agency recently suggested. Instead, the plaintiffs argued that the Middle District of Pennsylvania should order OSHA to pursue an imminent danger order under § 662(b) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The filing also notes that a recent executive order compelling OSHA action and subsequent updated guidance may change the agency’s tune and improve working conditions, but does not render the case moot. The plaintiffs asked that if the court declines to issue a § 662(b) order, the court should alternatively order a re-inspection of the Maid-Rite facility at issue or stay the litigation and order mediation.

Initially, the July lawsuit was filed in response to a lack of federal direction from OSHA regarding COVID-19 workplace safety protocols. According to Monday’s response, the absence of regulation created dangers like “requiring workers along production lines to work elbow to elbow without opportunities for physical distancing, a practice that has resulted in deadly outbreaks at meat-processing plants around the country.” Of particular concern were working conditions at a Pennsylvania Maid-Rite Specialty Foods meatpacking plant.

In December, OSHA wrote to the court to advise it that it would not issue Maid-Rite a citation over conditions imposed on its workers. The plaintiffs responded by asking for judicial intervention to stem practices that they claimed continued to pose a serious and immediate threat to workers.

This week’s filing details why the case is not moot and what remedies the court could fashion to alleviate the plaintiffs’ grievances. According to the plaintiffs, “OSHA’s argument that the agency can act unilaterally and moot a case at its discretion is contrary to the language and purposes of § 662(d).” Further, they argue that “[n]otwithstanding OSHA’s arbitrary and capricious failure to intervene, Maid-Rite’s practices continue to constitute an imminent danger to workers.” The plaintiffs conclude that the court should adjudicate the action to prevent OSHA’s “continued failure to act in the future.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Towards Justice; Public Justice, P.C.; Nicholas Kaster, PLLP; and their own counsel.