Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

The president invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat processing plants to stay open after many had shut down following outbreaks of COVID-19 among their workers.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday categorizing meat processing plants as critical infrastructure in order to keep them open during the coronavirus pandemic and prevent a shortage of beef, chicken, and other meat. 

Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel plants to stay open after many had shut down following outbreaks of COVID-19 among their workers. The president’s announcement, which did not include any rules or guidance on how companies must protect workers, sparked concern among union leaders and workers groups. 

Meat-packing plants have become petri dishes for outbreaks, with workers standing side-by-side and cramming together in break rooms. Twenty-two meatpacking plants have shut down at some point in the past two months, impacting over 35,000 workers. At least 20 workers in meatpacking and food processing have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union, America’s largest meatpacking union with 250,000 members. Another 5,000 workers have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms.

Currently, two of the nation’s biggest pork processing plants are closed. Meat processing giant Tyson Foods suspended operations at its pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa after a slew of infections, and Smithfield Foods halted production at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after an outbreak infected 853 workers there.

All told, the closures have caused a 25% decrease in pork production capacity and a 10% decrease in beef production, according to the UFCW, and industry leaders have warned in recent days that American consumers could see meat shortages.

“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” John Tyson, Chairman of the Board of Tyson Foods, wrote in a full-page advertisement published Sunday in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”

Trump’s order seeks to address any concerns about possible shortages.

“It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (“meat and poultry”) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans,” Trump wrote in the order. “Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”

Under the order, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is charged with taking “all appropriate action” to “ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations” issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The order did not specify what, if any, additional precautions companies should take to protect workers and the Agriculture Department has deferred to the CDC and OSHA on issuing rules. OSHA has not imposed mandatory rules and has instead only issued non-binding recommendations.

Trump also said Tuesday that his order will protect meatpacking companies from legal liability from worker claims of not being adequately protected, but the order didn’t contain any specifics. 

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The  order, which is all but certain to put workers at risk, could spark legal challenges. Labor advocates have already filed lawsuits to force companies to cooperate with public health rules, including one filed against Smithfield Foods last week. In that case, a federal judge ordered the company to follow federal safety recommendations at a plant in Missouri, pending a Thursday hearing. 

Workers have already expressed concern about the order and are skeptical that their colleagues will return to the plants given the scope of the outbreaks.

“All I know is, this is crazy to me, because I can’t see all these people going back into work,” Donald, who works at Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa, facility, told CNN on Tuesday. He asked the news organization to refer to him by his first name only. “I don’t think people are going to go back in there.”

Another worker, at Tyson’s Independence, Iowa plant, sounded a similar concern. “I just don’t know how they’re going to do it when there are people dying and getting really sick,” the anonymous employee said. “Who’s to say people are even gonna show up to work?”

Workers weren’t alone in expressing their frustration. The UFCW on Tuesday demanded the Trump administration take tangible steps to protect workers.

“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first. Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement.

Perrone asked the Trump administration to immediately enact “clear and enforceable safety standards” that require meatpacking companies to provide top-of-the-line personal protective equipment via the federal stockpile of PPE, guarantee daily testing for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave to workers who contract COVID-19. He also called for constant monitoring of plants by federal inspectors and access to representation to ensure workers’ rights are not being violated. 

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the administration should have acted sooner to put safety measures in place. “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” he said.

And Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7, which represents 3,000 workers at the JBS meat processing plant in Greeley, Colorado, said the order “will only ensure that more workers get sick, jeopardizing lives, family’s income, communities, and of course, the country’s food supply chain.”

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Some companies, including JBS, have already implemented changes. They include temperature testing all workers prior to entering facilities, providing extra PPE, including masks, promoting physical distancing by staggering shifts and breaks, increased sanitation and disinfection efforts, and requiring sick workers to stay home.

But Perrone and the UFCW want the government to step up to guarantee further protections for workers. 

“All of our country’s elected leaders – federal and state – must work together to ensure that we keep these essential workers safe and our country’s food supply secure,” Perrone said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.