President Trump’s plan to keep the nation’s meat processing facilities open has worker advocates worried it won’t address the root cause of the recent plant closures roiling the industry: the lack of proper safety equipment to protect workers from coronavirus.
Trump announced Tuesday that he would use the powers of the Defense Production Act to compel key meat and poultry operations to continue running, as “essential” parts of the country’s infrastructure, after several plants closed due to coronavirus outbreaks and lockdowns.
Industry advocates and analysts warn the number of plants that have closed or reduced operations could result in widespread shortages of meat products in a matter of weeks.
Some 20 meat-packing and processing facilities are currently closed, according to a tally by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, with more closing every day. FERN estimates that 4,330 workers have gotten sick from the virus -- 800 in one South Dakota pork processing facility alone-- and 19 or more have died.
"There will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed," said John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods Inc, in an open letter published over the weekend in the New York Times and other papers.
A study released Tuesday by a group of agricultural economists at Kansas State University estimated that there were only about 10 days worth of meat products left in the supply chain — at a time when the pork industry, in particular, had already seen a 30% decline in output.
But worker-safety advocates like Tony Corbo, the senior government affairs representative at Food & Water Watch, say they’re much more concerned about making the workplaces safe.
“My first reaction was, If you didn’t drink the Lysol already, the next option is to go work in one of these meat plants,” he told VICE News after Trump’s announcement. “These plants are normally dangerous without having a pandemic to worry about.”
An executive order forcing them back on line, he added, “doesn’t solve the problem.”
“If they’re part of the critical infrastructure -- fine. Nobody’s arguing about that,” Corbo said. “But give them the proper safety equipment, and don’t penalize them if they’re sick, because a lot of these plants don’t have paid sick leave and are holding it against these workers if they do call in sick.”
Without those protections, it’s still not guaranteed that operations will resume fully. A number of plants that have been forced to close in recent weeks did so not only because of sicknesses but also because workers simply refused to show up, out of fears that they wouldn’t be safe.
Union leaders like Wendell Young IV, who is the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers local 1776, in Pennsylvania, say they’ve been working closely with both their members and company owners to make working conditions safer, including by providing protective equipment and building dividers to separate workers on the line.
“Our members work for essential business,” Young said. “That makes them essential employees. It doesn't make them sacrificial employees. They didn't sign up for that.”
Pilar Belendez-Desha and Scott Mulligan contributed reporting.
Cover: A Tyson Fresh Meats plant employee leaves the plant, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Logansport, Ind. The plant will temporarily close its meatpacking plant in north-central Indiana after several employees tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)