District Court Refuses to Hear Workers’ COVID Claims

By Alyssa L. Levy

As employees begin returning to work, the court’s decision in Rural Community Workers Alliance et al. v. Smithfield Foods Inc. et al., No. 5:20-cv-06063 (W.D. Mo. May 5, 2020) may influence whether courts hear claims about worker protections. In this case, the plaintiffs alleged the defendant employer failed to adequately protect its workers from COVID-19 at its meat-processing plant and filed for an injunction to enforce additional safety measures. The employer argued its safety policies and procedures were in compliance with the Joint Guidance of the CDC and OSHA. Although the court recognized the seriousness of the employees’ safety concerns, it ultimately granted the employer’s Motion to Dismiss and/or Stay pursuant to the primary jurisdiction doctrine. The court could not ignore the USDA’s and OSHA’s authority over the issues in this case and sought to avoid the risk of haphazard application of the Joint Guidance among different courts.

A quick succession of events:

  • On April 26, 2020, the CDC and OSHA issued Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers – Interim Guidance (the Joint Guidance), which provides supplemental guidance to meat-processing plants concerning COVID-19.  
  • On April 27, 2020, the employer filed a Motion to Dismiss, stating the court should defer to OSHA for the issues in this case.
  • On April 28, 2020, the president signed Executive Order 13917 under the Defense Production Act, delegating authority to the Secretary of Agriculture to take all appropriate action “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by” the CDC and OSHA.  
  • On April 29, 2020, the employer supplemented its Motion to Dismiss, stating the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) now had jurisdiction over this case.

The primary jurisdiction doctrine: This doctrine allows a district court to refer a matter to the appropriate administrative agency for ruling in the first instance, even when the court might otherwise hear the matter.

Plaintiffs’ injunction is denied: The plaintiffs sought an injunction seeking to force the employer to “provide masks; ensure social distancing; give employees an opportunity to wash their hands while on the line; provide tissues; change its leave policy to discourage individuals to show up to work when they have symptoms of the virus; give workers access to testing; develop a contact-tracing policy; and allow their expert to tour the Plant.” Although the court’s opinion acknowledged the threat COVID-19 presents, the plaintiffs did not succeed on their injunction.  

OSHA’s and USDA’s primary jurisdiction: The court ruled that regardless of its ability to rule on the plaintiffs’ injunction, OSHA (in coordination with the USDA per the executive order) is better positioned to determine whether the employer was abiding by the Joint Guidance because of OSHA’s expertise and experience with workplace regulations. The court further opined that “deference to OSHA/USDA will ensure uniform national enforcement of the Joint Guidance,” rather than create inconsistent regulation of businesses in the same industry by court rulings in multiple jurisdictions.

Although these plaintiffs sought immediate injunctive action from the district court, this opinion is clear: the USDA and OSHA retain jurisdiction over safety and health concerns related to COVID-19. As the court explained, “this determination goes to the heart of OSHA’s special competence: its mission includes ‘enforcing’ occupational safety and health standards.” As more employees return to work, other civil courts may recognize the value of uniform application of such guidance and may refer claims about employees’ safety and health concerns to the USDA and OSHA to investigate employer compliance. Be aware that OSHA, CDC, and USDA guidance will likely change in the coming months, and their enforcement may become stricter, especially if the safety and health guidelines become standards and requirements.