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

By: - May 5, 2020 1:15 pm

President Donald Trump addressed the nation, Jan. 8, 2020. Screenshot from CBS special report.

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.

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.

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.