A US executive order issued on April 28 declares meat and poultry processing plants ‘critical infrastructure’ and enjoins state and local authorities from taking any action to close them due to health and safety concerns. The order comes in response to heavy lobbying by the industry following recent closings of plants belonging to the major meat companies, which have become hot spots for viral contagion across the country. According to the IUF-affiliated UFCW, at least 20 meat workers have died from COVID-19 and over 5,000 have been hospitalized or show symptoms.
Protection from legal liability from work-related claims of illness or death is a key industry concern. The federal Center for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have issued safety guidelines for the industry, but the guidelines are voluntary.
IUF affiliates responded to the government’s action by insisting on enforceable measures to ensure worker safety. Marc Perrone, President of the UFCW, North America’s packinghouse union, called on the administration “To immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected. Additionally, to protect the food supply and ensure these safety standards for workers are enforced, these plants must be constantly monitored by federal inspectors and workers must have access to representation to ensure their rights are not violated.”
Prior to the executive order compelling the plants to remain open, the UFCW had called on the federal Coronavirus Task Force to prioritize essential safety measures for workers in the meatpacking industry.
Stuart Appelbaum, President of the RWDSU which represents many poultry workers, said “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products. When poultry plants shut down, it’s for deep cleaning and to save workers’ lives. If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on as they should have and still must do, this would not even have become an issue. Employers and government must do better. If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy.”
OSHA currently has only 862 inspectors for enforcing workplace safety across the country – 58% of the number employed in 1980. Earlier this month, OSHA announced changes to enforcement rules that would in most cases free employers from recording whether workers with COVID-19 were exposed on the job.
The executive order was announced the same day that the IUF and unions around the world called for official recognition of COVID-19 as an occupational disease by governments and national health and safety bodies. This recognition would require employers to take necessary measures to protect workers against the risk of exposure, keep mandatory records on infection, establish liability for failure and provide compensation to workers and their families sickened and killed by COVID-19.