Trump’s critics warn his order to keep meat plants open imperils workers

Employees at the Gainesville Tyson Foods chicken plant work the processing line in close quarters, but now with a plastic barrier between them. Four Tyson workers died recently of COVID-19 at the company's Camilla plant in south Georgia. Contributed by Tyson Foods

WASHINGTON — Democratic senators are accusing President Donald Trump of putting workers at risk by ordering meat and poultry processors to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Democrats are asking Trump to amend an executive order he signed last week, which declared meat plants to be “critical infrastructure” and ordered his administration to ensure that they continue to operate.

Trump’s order comes as slaughterhouses around the country have emerged as hot spots for the spread of COVID-19, forcing closures in some locations and disrupting food supply chains.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were at least 115 meat or poultry processing facilities with COVID-19 cases by April 27. More than 4,900 workers had been diagnosed with the disease, and 20 deaths linked to COVID-19 had been reported among those workers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union — the nation’s largest meatpacking union — puts the number of infections even higher, stating that 6,500 meat industry workers had contracted COVID-19.

“Without immediate, comprehensive intervention by the federal government to ensure the health and safety of workers at these plants, workers in the meat processing industry will remain at extremely high risk of contracting the virus and the plants will continue to be a major vector of significant infection,” the Democratic senators wrote last week in a letter to Trump.

Nearly 400 Georgia poultry workers tested positive for COVID-19 in the state’s 14 chicken plants, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report published last week. In south Georgia four Tyson Foods poultry workers died of the disease and in northeast Georgia Gainesville’s “Poultry Capital of the World” is preparing for a spike in cases as workers fear going into the plant.

CNN reported last week that although Trump gave Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue the power to invoke the Defense Production Act to order companies to continue operating, the department hadn’t forced any shuttered facilities to reopen. The order could, however, allow the federal government to override the decisions of state and local officials who may try to close plants based on health concerns.

The Democratic senators accused the administration of refusing to use its existing authority to keep workers safe.

“In light of the woeful lack of federal standards and enforcement, state and local officials have recently taken action to close several unsafe meatpacking plants that put workers and their communities at risk,” they wrote to the president.

The administration’s use of the Defense Production Act to mandate plants’ reopening “could prevent State and local authorities from compelling companies to provide workers with essential protections, and thus being able to keep their communities safe,” they wrote. They urged Trump to amend his executive order to mandate that meat plants shuttered by officials or of their own accord could reopen only after meeting safety guidelines.

Last week, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released new voluntary guidance for meat and poultry processing facilities intended to improve worker safety during the pandemic. It notes that workers often work close to one another on processing lines for prolonged periods of time, and it urges employers to keep workers at least six feet apart or put physical barriers between them, “if feasible.”

But Democrats and some former safety officials want the administration to implement tougher standards.

Deborah Berkowitz, a former senior policy advisor at OSHA, said on a conference call earlier this month that the “outbreak in meatpacking was not inevitable.”

She added, “It was because of a decision by all big meat companies to not implement basic guidance that the CDC issued back in March to keep everyone six feet apart and prevent the spread of COVID-19 … The companies will continue to prioritize production and profits over worker safety until they are required to implement safe provisions.”

Democrats in the House and Senate are separately pushing for legislation that would require emergency enforceable standards to protect workers from COVID-19 exposure while on the job.

The House version of the bill has 63 Democratic co-sponsors including Georgia’s Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany and Rep. Lucy McBath of Marietta, and one Republican backer, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. At least 20 co-sponsors had signed on to the Senate version of the legislation.

Georgia Recorder Editor John McCosh contributed to this article.