EWG: USDA Must Do More To Protect Meat Workers

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(202) 939-9141
For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The following is the statement of Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president of government affairs, on Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue’s May 5 letter on meatpacker expectations.

Secretary Perdue should do more than exhort meatpacking companies to follow guidelines to keep workers safe. Perdue and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia should issue emergency standards that employers must follow.

At least 5,000 workers in 115 meatpacking plants have gotten sick from COVID-19, and at least 20 have died so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 22 plants have closed. CDC reporting does not include new cases reported since April 27 and does not include all states or all meatpacking plants. Others estimate that many more workers have gotten sick and died. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting estimates that there have been at least 9,300 reported cases of COVID-19 in 27 states.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration has invoked the Defense Production Act to pressure these plants to stay open – without simultaneously ordering employers to provide workers with basic safety protections. What’s more, at the urging of food companies and other business interests, the Trump administration and Republican leaders in Congress have sought to protect employers like food companies when their workers become sick or die from COVID-19. 

Crowded conditions have made meatpacking plants a hotspot for the spread of COVID-19. But, despite appeals from Congress and labor leaders, neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor the Department of Agriculture has yet issued emergency standards requiring food and farm employers to meet the CDC’s safety guidelines. Although some employers have taken steps to protect workers, these safety protections are not mandatory and are not subject to enforcement. Simply exhorting employers to keep workers safe, or requiring them submit records to the USDA, is not the same as setting and enforcing emergency standards.

To protect food and farm workers, Congress should direct OSHA to issue emergency standards, as proposed by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Congress should also ensure that all food and farm workers are eligible for testing, sick pay and hazard pay. 

Many food and farm workers are not eligible for free COVID-19 testing. If they do become sick, many are ineligible for paid sick leave, increasing the likelihood they will infect their co-workers. The Families First Act passed by Congress requires some employers to provide two weeks of paid sick leave, but many food and farm companies are exempt from the requirement.

Although they have been deemed essential workers, food and farm workers do not receive hazard pay to reflect the risks they face. Because many are undocumented, many are ineligible for health benefits other workers enjoy, such as Medicaid. As a result, undocumented workers are not only denied hazard pay and sick pay but also lack access to health care, increasing the likelihood that the virus will spread as they continue to work.

Congress should also reject efforts to grant immunity to employers who fail to protect their workers from COVID-19. Companies that implement mandatory safety requirements and apply reasonable care will not face the avalanche of liability some Republicans and business interests fear. Granting protection to employers will only increase the number of sick workers and further weaken our food supply chains. Food prices in general – not just meat and poultry – could rise as labor shortages affect other food categories.

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