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This LA company was hit with state's largest-ever COVID-19 fine. Some say it's a model for worker safety

By Leila Miller, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

In late July, Gloria Lopez, a weight checker at a frozen food processing plant in Vernon, noticed that a plexiglass divider was missing between workers on the production line.

Two employees were left exposed to the coronavirus. Neither had said anything.

"I said to one of them, 'Do you feel comfortable the way you're working?' And she said, 'No, but what do you want me to do?' " Lopez recalled.

Within minutes, Lopez instructed an employee to hit a button to stop production. She told the line leader she belonged to a new safety committee at the plant owned by Overhill Farms, which has authorized the panel's members to halt production if safety precautions were lacking.

About 10 minutes later, the divider was back.

"I thought to myself, 'Yes, we can do something with our committee,'" said Lopez, from Huntington Park. "Yes, we can be safer where we work."

 

The company and workers backed by a union formed the group in the midst of a serious problem. On Sept. 9, California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, announced more than $200,000 in fines each for Overhill Farms and its temporary employment agency, Jobsource North America - the state's largest fines to date for coronavirus health violations.

The citations, which reference more than 20 cases of the virus and one worker death, stem from inspections begun in April, which found the company failed to provide sufficient protective equipment, enforce physical distancing or inform workers about the dangers. They follow the first fines Cal/OSHA announced on Sept. 4 for coronavirus safety violations, with penalties against 11 employers ranging from $2,025 to $51,190.

Overhill Farms and Jobsource have said they plan to dispute the citations. Overhill Farms called the allegations "erroneous," asserting that Cal/OSHA falsely claimed that the company failed to install plexiglass dividers.

"The health and safety of our employees is our first priority," the company said in a statement. "Overhill Farms has not only taken steps in line with the constantly evolving federal, state and local guidance, we have gone above and beyond those recommendations as we developed our employee safety procedures."

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