The difficult working conditions in modern meatpacking plants have proven fertile ground for the spread of COVID-19. Plant managers and local health officials saw the spread of the illness among their staff as serious enough to force them to close more numerous facilities down to limit the spread and clean thoroughly. By early April, according to Common Cause, more than 3,000 virus-related complaints had been received by the Occupational and Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from workers fearful their working conditions put them at risk.
Despite the nation having no actual shortage of meat, with a record 2.5 billion pounds filling storage lockers across the nation, on Tuesday, President Trump issued an emergency order as the worries of plant owners reached his desk. Rather than protect workers with clear, stringent rules about how to run meatpacking plants safely, he chose to order them to stay open because, as reported by USA Today, “it is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (‘meat and poultry’) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.”
Food & Water Watch’s Tony Corbo said in a statement Trump’s plan to instruct slaughter plants to stay open despite causing major outbreaks of COVID-19 is… deadly and foolish and will cause catastrophic harm. If unsafe food plants remain open, more food workers will die. The federal government should be stepping into supplement food distribution networks to get our abundant frozen meat supplies to stores and food banks that need them. Instead, they are currying favor with giant corporations that have continuously put their bottom line above workers’ health, food safety, and the vitality of our food supply chain.”
“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork, and poultry products,” Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union president Stuart Applebaum said in a statement. “Employers and government must do better,” he added. “If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy.”
The Centers for Disease Control and OSHA jointly developed a detailed set of recommendations for how to redesign the entire process of bringing meat from farm to market, but it’s only advisory. OSHA has seconded the CDC’s employer-friendly stance and, in a statement, Solicitor of Labor Kate O’Scannlain and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA Loren Sweatt indicated they will help defend employers if they are sued by their workers over health violations:
Courts often consider compliance with OSHA standards and guidance as evidence in an employer’s favor in litigation. Where a meat, pork, or poultry processing employer operating pursuant to the President’s invocation of the DPA has demonstrated good faith attempts to comply with the Joint Meat Processing Guidance and is sued for alleged workplace exposures, the Department of Labor will consider a request to participate in that litigation in support of the employer’s compliance program. Likewise, the Department of Labor will consider similar requests by workers if their employer has not taken steps in good faith to follow the Joint Meat Processing Guidance.
Debbie Berkowitz, former OSHA senior policy adviser and current director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project, sees this as a dereliction of duty and “government malfeasance.”
“OSHA’s mission to protect workers in the most dangerous jobs has been seriously compromised under the Trump administration,” Berkowitz says. “The agency has essentially abandoned its responsibility to ensure that employers keep workers safe from COVID-19. OSHA…has chosen—this is a choice—not to enforce any requirements in the meat industry to protect workers. The industry looked at these recommendations—they are voluntary—and in the end did not implement them.”
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the nation’s largest meatpacking union, recognizes the need to put the interests of workers first in comments reported by USA Today. “Simply put…we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”
In the absence of protections from the CDC, OSHA, and state government, the meatpackers are on their own. Since the CARES Act provisions concerning unemployment insurance do not grant benefits to an employee who fears contracting COVID-19 because of the unsafe nature of their workplace, the economic pressure on them to stay on the job will be great. For the average meatpacker, who earns a little more than $25,000 annually—well under the $15/hour living wage standard—this is effectively a gun to the head.
Democracy Now notes several governors are wielding this weapon as they push to reopen their economies despite an active epidemic. “Iowa’s Republican governor [Kim Reynolds] has warned furloughed workers they will lose their unemployment benefits if they refuse to return to their jobs once remain-at-home orders are lifted—even if the workers fear injury or death from COVID-19. Nebraska Republican Governor Pete Ricketts has issued a similar warning.”
Earlier this month, Steve Dubb, writing for NPQ, reminded us of our common interest in amplifying the voice of workers. The tale of hard working but underpaid meat and poultry processors in danger is one replicated in many workplaces. We all have a stake in seeing their interests protected.
During these weeks of pandemic, we have learned how many have jobs that must be done in person. We have come to recognize that the work of grocery store workers, bus drivers, and millions of other modestly paid and often invisible people is “essential.” We have asked an estimated 48.7 million workers to risk their life and health so that all of us “inessential” workers can shelter in place without worrying about basic necessities.
We are also learning that from some of our leaders’ perspective, protecting the lives of those we see as essential isn’t as important as protecting the profits of their employers and the comfort of those they serve.—Martin Levine