COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in meat processing plants across the country. 6500 meatpacking workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine, and at least 20 have already died of the virus. Nearly two dozen meatpacking facilities have closed (some temporarily) after the coronavirus began spreading among employees.
These workers' lives are at risk, and the current safety procedures are inadequate. Instead of requiring the meat processing industry to protect workers, Trump signed an executive order prohibiting the industry from closing their facilities. The order blames states for imposing safety requirements that were too stringent. The order describes meat processing as "critical infrastructure." It warns that the "closure of a single meat or poultry processing facility can severely disrupt the supply of protein to an entire grocery store chain." The order did not include any enforceable safety standards for workers.
Meat, of course, is not essential. If large quantities of meat do not reach a particular grocery store, it does not "disrupt the supply of protein" because there are plenty of other foods with protein. No one should get sick or die, so someone else can eat a hamburger.
The order will impact "194,000 frontline meatpacking workers in the Animal Slaughtering and Processing Industry." Moving forward, the order will "prevent local health officials from ordering meat companies to use their the most effective weapon available to protect their employees from the coronavirus — closures."
Trump was responding to the demands of the meat processing industry. On Sunday, the Chairman of Tyson Foods, John Tyson, published an open letter in national newspapers arguing that "our plants must remain operational." Tyson Foods is the world's second-largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork, and is valued at $18 billion. "The food supply chain is breaking. We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as health care. This is a challenge that should not be ignored," Tyson wrote.
Trump's order allows Tyson Foods to ignore state regulations and continue operating. But it goes beyond that. Trump said that, by invoking the Defense Production Act, he would solve the "liability" problem for Tyson Foods and other meat processors.
On the surface, Trump is "ordering" these companies to keep their plants open. In reality, the executive order "was developed in consultation with industry leaders including Tyson and Smithfield." On Tuesday, Smithfield released a statement supporting the order, claiming it would "ensure the American people will not experience protein shortages."
If all these meat processing facilities keep operating at full capacity, more workers will get sick. But, if the companies are sued for exposing workers to unsafe conditions, the companies can use Trump's executive order as a defense. The companies could argue that they had no choice but to keep operating, whether or not they could do so safely, because they were ordered to stay open by Trump. Experts believe that this argument would constitute a "solid" defense to any lawsuit.
"Sending workers back to meat-processing plants without proper protection is tantamount to a death sentence," the Environmental Working Group, a research group, said.
Biological class warfare
The coronavirus response is a story about class. White-collar workers are being told to stay safe at home. This includes executives at Tyson Foods. As chairman, John Tyson's total compensation in 2019 was $10,322,100, and CEO Noel White was paid $10,398,160.
Meanwhile, meatpacking workers are being required to show up at crowded job sites for mediocre pay, so no one has to change their eating habits. Nearly half of meatpacking workers live in low-income families — $52,000 or less for a family of four. 12.4% of meatpacking workers live below the poverty line. On average, workers are paid just $15 per hour.
The industry is also disproportionately comprised of people of color. 34.9% of meatpackers are Hispanic, and 22.5% are black. More than half are immigrants.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds (R) said that workers that don't return to meatpacking plants will not be eligible for unemployment benefits. "If you're an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that's a voluntary quit," she said.
Even in the best of times, meatpacking is extremely dangerous work
Before the pandemic hit, meatpacking in the United States was dangerous work with a high likelihood of debilitating injury. A 2019 study from Human Rights Watch described the conditions:
Despite advances in technology, this work still depends on the strength of human hands. Hundreds of thousands of women and men do the killing, cutting, deboning, and packaging of American-grown meat, most of whom spend their entire shift operating as components of a continually moving dissection machine, fulfilling one need in the complex process of disassembling animals.
These workers have some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the United States. They labor in environments full of potentially life-threatening dangers. Moving machine parts can cause traumatic injuries by crushing, amputating, burning, and slicing. The tools of the trade—knives, hooks, scissors, and saws, among others—can cut, stab, and infect. The cumulative trauma of repeating the same, forceful motions, tens of thousands of times each day can cause severe and disabling injuries.
...OSHA data show that a worker in the meat and poultry industry lost a body part or was sent to the hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day between 2015 and 2018.
The report found that, despite these issues, the Trump administration was "weakening oversight of meat and poultry companies, which could further undermine workers’ right to safe and healthy working conditions in the process."
During the pandemic, the Trump administration issued waivers to make things worse
One of the primary issues with meatpacking facilities is that, by design, they don't allow for social distancing between workers. The Trump administration is again making things worse.
For years, companies have "sought to maximize the volume of production and minimize the cost of labor by pushing production speeds faster." In April, "the federal government granted 15 poultry processors waivers to cut chickens faster, usually by crowding more workers onto their production lines." Not surprisingly, the facilities that received waivers were "10 times more likely than the meatpacking industry as a whole to have coronavirus cases among workers."
In April, the FDA has issued more waivers allowing for increased speeds at poultry processing facilities "than it had in any previous month over the past eight years of the program’s existence."
"I’m convinced that the USDA is probably just putting those out there because they think we’re all preoccupied with COVID and not paying attention to what they’re doing," a representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents meatpacking workers, said.
Tyson Foods "has 13 poultry plants with speed waivers, including its operation in Robards, Kentucky, where at least 62 employees have been infected."
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