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Trump order puts workers in meat and poultry processing, other essential industries in harm’s way

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Workers in a poultry processing plant. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Frontline workers’ health and safety took another hit last week, after new Trump administration rules put meat and poultry processing workers at increased risk. This week COVID-19’s grim toll crossed 60,000 deaths [2].  

Over the past several weeks, the epidemic has ravaged workers in essential industries, from warehouses [3] to grocery stores [4] to meatpacking plants [5]. Forced to work shoulder-to-shoulder [6] without access to adequate, or in some cases, any protective gear, hand sanitizer, paid sick days, frontline workers across dozens of essential worksites are contracting and dying from COVID-19.  In some workplaces, conditions are so unsafe and unsanitary that workers are risking termination by walking off the job [7] and refusing to return [8] until the facilities are adequately cleaned [4], and protective gear made available. There has been a lack of industry transparency about who has become ill, but in response to this public health crisis, many employers with high infection rates have been closing. 

North Carolina’s frontline workers are not immune. In the past few weeks, there have been outbreaks at poultry processing plants, like Butterball [9], where more than 50 have been infected at the company’s Duplin County location; Mountaire [10], where a dozen workers in Siler City tested positive; and Pilgrim’s Pride [11] in Sanford. The number of infections have increased at pork processing plants, such as Smithfield, where workers in Tar Heel and Clinton have reported unsanitary conditions and a rising number of COVID-19 cases, yet they have no paid sick days. 

Faced with the rising toll of COVID-19 inflections in these essential industries, the Trump administration moved swiftly into action last week, working to weaken the protections facing frontline meatpacking workers on the job.

At the outset of the crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued voluntary guidance urging employers to take specific actions to reduce the spread of COVID among their employees [12]. These measures included providing PPE and hand sanitizer to their employees, staggering breaks and increasing distance between workers on the line to reduce transmission of the disease. And just last week, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Labor both issued new guidance for poultry and meat processing plants in particular [13], which expanded on many of these same recommendations. But because the guidance is merely voluntary, employers are complying sporadically, if at all — with the predictable results as described above.  

Instead of responding to the crisis in meat and poultry processing by requiring  essential industries to adopt these guidelines as mandatory, the Trump administration did the opposite: It used the National Defense Production Act (NDPA) to make it easier for meat and poultry processers to avoid protecting their workers from the coronavirus [14], even if conditions are unsafe and unsanitary and contribute to the spread of COVID-19 infections among their workers. 

Specifically, the administration issued an executive order last Wednesday that declared meat and poultry processing plants part of the critical infrastructure and therefore required to stay open [14]— even when large numbers of employees are infected with COVID-19. This likely means that state and local health departments can’t close a workplace suffering from COVID-19 outbreak or that is failing to practice workplace safety to prevent the spread of the virus. Locally enforced closures are the only real recourse available to ensure businesses comply with health and safety guidance, and the executive order effectively eliminates his tool for working people.  

In a bit of dark irony, the move to use the president’s power to mobilize the industry and weaken protections for workers comes after weeks of states begging the administration to use the NDPA to boost production of desperately needed personal protective equipment: masks, gloves, surgical gowns and other protective gear to support frontline workers. So not only did the President fail to use his authority to improve the health and safety of workers on the job, he actually used his authority to hurt them — just as COVID-19 infections accelerate at these facilities.

Adding to the approaching storm clouds, the administration and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have proposed shielding employers from any legal consequences when their workers (or customers) contract COVID-19 on the job [15] Under the proposed liability shield, workers would no longer have legal recourse to sue their employer, even if the company jeopardizes them through unsafe and unsanitary workplace conditions that led to the spread of the coronavirus.  

In light of the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s stated refusal to enforce workplace safety protections in cases involving COVID-19 [16], the proposed liability shield gives bad-actor employers in meat and poultry processing and other frontline industries a blank check to ignore CDC guidance and put their workers at risk of exposure. Together with the widespread lack of PPE and the refusal to mandate an increase its production, this is a recipe for mass infections and a likely death toll at a scale we haven’t yet seen.  

While Congress should reject the proposed liability shield, the state of North Carolina must act in the meantime to fill the enforcement void left by the Trump administration. Specifically, the state should enact the following policies for meat and poultry processing employers in North Carolina:

If state officials fails to adopt these measures, efforts to re-open the economy will trigger a second and likely third wave of infections before the year is done — just another reminder that the economy is made up of people, and sick people can’t help employers stay afloat.