When President Donald Trump signed an executive order April 28 to declare meatpacking plants critical infrastructure, he tapped the secretary of agriculture to keep the plants open amid a wave of coronavirus outbreaks.
The move signaled that the nation’s priorities focused more on the continued production of meat than the safety of workers.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have nothing to do with worker protections. Their mission, as Perdue noted May 5 in a letter to meatpacking companies, “is to inspect meat and poultry products to ensure that they are wholesome and safe.”
Worker safety is the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Perdue said the USDA was partnering with OSHA and the CDC to protect meatpacking employees.
Since the executive order, COVID-19 cases tied to meatpacking plants have skyrocketed from fewer than 5,000 to more than 25,000 as of two weeks ago, according to tracking from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
Deaths have increased fivefold to 91.
Rather than protecting workers, a half-dozen experts and advocates said, the federal government is failing them.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors. There was never any expectation by the industry or the government that they would impose any requirements on the industry to change its practices to protect workers,” said Debbie Berkowitz, who spent six years as chief of staff and senior policy adviser at OSHA and is director of the National Employment Law Project’s worker health and safety program.
In April, major meatpacking companies announced safety measures, such as requiring workers to wear masks, inserting plastic barriers on the cutting line and checking workers’ temperatures. They have not slowed the spread of the virus. About a quarter of the workforce at a Tyson plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, tested positive after protections had been in place for about a month.
Throughout the pandemic, workers have reported they’re forced to work alongside people with symptoms. One federal meat inspector, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media, said workers in several plants she visits were not wearing masks and practiced only limited social distancing. Some, she said, had tested positive for COVID-19.
After Trump’s orders, red flags appeared almost immediately.
A day after Trump’s order, the USDA said meatpacking plants would have to submit to the agency their COVID-19 safety plans. It narrowed the directive later to include only the plants that had closed without a clear timetable for reopening. As a result, no one submitted a plan.
Perdue publicly ordered all plants to follow the meatpacking safety guidelines jointly issued by OSHA and the CDC. Days later, the USDA admitted it had done nothing to confirm that plants were following them, according to a letter members of the Senate Agriculture Committee sent to Perdue on May 15.
The letter details how USDA officials repeatedly said worker safety is OSHA’s responsibility – the USDA primarily oversees food safety – but the agency did not consult with OSHA to ensure it inspected any of the closed plants before they reopened.
OSHA is operating with its fewest number of safety inspectors since it was created in the 1970s, according to the National Employment Law Project and based on a compilation of OSHA data and documents. An agency spokesperson said the agency was “actively recruiting” inspectors.
From Feb. 1 to June 16, the agency received 185 complaints about meat and poultry plants related to the coronavirus, according to data OSHA provided. There have been 56 inspections.
At one JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, the workers’ union president asked OSHA to inspect the plant in March.
Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, said a regional OSHA official told her “that they have no direction on how to handle COVID and they simply just didn’t have the staff to do it.”
OSHA did not inspect the facility until mid-May. By that point, at least five workers had died. With nearly 300 cases, the plant is the site of the largest outbreak in Colorado. A sixth worker has since died.
“It took workers to die for OSHA to show up,” Cordova said. “They failed these workers. Here the president issues an executive order, but it doesn’t take into any account worker safety. … Unless you have verifiable and enforceable laws, the companies will do the bare minimum.”
JBS did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s unclear how OSHA decides which plants to inspect. The agency opened an investigation into the Rantoul Foods pork plant in Rantoul, Illinois, after health inspectors found no barriers between workers on the line and cold water at sinks. Almost 100 workers have tested positive, though there have been no deaths. OSHA asked the county health department for information it had on the plant, but a Department of Labor spokesman would not say whether OSHA inspectors had actually visited it.
In Joslin, Illinois, the home of a large Tyson Foods plant, nearly 200 workers have tested positive, and two have died. OSHA has not initiated an inquiry into the plant. The local health department has not heard from the agency, spokeswoman Janet Hill said.
An agency spokesperson said OSHA was taking the necessary steps to protect workers from the coronavirus.
“It is important that employers seek to adhere to” the CDC and OSHA guidelines for meatpacking plants, the spokesperson said. “In the event of an investigation, OSHA will take into account good faith attempts to follow the (guidelines). OSHA does not anticipate citing employers that adhere to the (guidelines).”
The CDC has visited plants, but it doesn’t enforce worker safety. As of June 9, the agency toured facilities in 17 states, including Nebraska, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, said Jason McDonald, an agency spokesman. It has not sent a team to Iowa, which has several plants with large outbreaks.
The CDC issues only recommendations. It doesn’t enforce companies’ safety plans. When asked by USA TODAY what the agency was doing to ensure workers were safe, McDonald replied, “Please contact USDA and/or OSHA.”
The USDA did not respond to requests for comments. The White House did not respond to a request for comment about why the USDA was chosen as the lead agency on meatpacking plants during the pandemic.
“There has been much more energy and concern around addressing the concerns of the meatpacking and other food processing business interests than in what needs to happen for workers,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the ranking minority member of the Agriculture Committee, told USA TODAY. “I have not seen any plan from the USDA on how they are going to ensure that plants are taking the necessary steps to protect workers.”
Stabenow was among the 29 committee members who raised concerns about the USDA’s handling of meatpacking worker safety in the letter May 15. The senators asked a series of questions related to how the agency planned to keep workers safe and asked for answers by May 25.
The USDA has not provided answers, according to those who signed the letter.
Aberdeen News, 21 June 2020