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Trump Orders Meat Plants To Stay Open Amid Concerns For Worker Safety

April 30, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
A customer selects a package of ground sirloin at Westborn Market in Berkley, Mich., Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WASHINGTON – Amid growing concerns that the coronavirus crisis could disrupt America’s food chain, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday to keep meat and poultry processing plants open during the pandemic.

Citing the Defense Production Act, which gives the president broad authority over the industrial sector, Trump designated meat processing facilities as “critical infrastructure.” The order directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations.”

The coronavirus pandemic has forced some of the nation’s largest meat processing facilities to temporarily shut down following COVID-19 outbreaks among workers.

JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, announced the indefinite closure of its Worthington pork plant last week after several employees tested positive for the virus. The Wisconsin facility processes an average of 20,000 hogs per day and employs more than 2,000 people.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union estimates that at least 22 U.S. meatpacking plants have temporarily closed due to coronavirus concerns within the last two months.

Food executives have voiced concerns that plant closures could create serious snags in America’s food distribution chain. In a full-page ad that ran in the New York Times, Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson said the company had a “responsibility to feed our country” despite the threat posed by the pandemic. 

“Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America,” Tyson said. “This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.”

But labor leaders say that keeping meat plants open without implementing strict safety measures could put workers at risk. In a statement, the National Farmers Union said that Trump’s order “absolves” companies from any legal ramifications if employees get sick or die.

“These workers work in close quarters and often lack access to appropriate protective equipment or paid sick leave, making them among the most vulnerable to coronavirus,” said NFU President Bob Larew. “Their health and lives are not an acceptable tradeoff for our meat supply, nor are these things mutually exclusive – we must find solutions that protect both.”

At least 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have already died from COVID-19, and thousands have been hospitalized, according to union estimates.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been pressing Democrats to include liability protections for employers in the next coronavirus relief bill, leveraging the demand against the promise of additional emergency funding for states and local governments. 

“We can’t pass another bill unless we have liability protection,” McConnell said in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday.

The idea has met with resistance from Democrats who say liability protections would make it difficult to hold employers accountable for failing to protect workers.

“McConnell wants to make it harder for workers to show up at their jobs and to hold their employers accountable for providing safe working conditions,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on a call with reporters on Tuesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday said House Democrats were unlikely to give in to McConnell’s demands, signalling the possibility of a stalemate in Congress. 
“Especially now, we have every reason to protect our workers and our patients in all of this,” Pelosi told reporters at a press conference. “So we would not be inclined to be supporting any immunity from liability.”

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