Washington Insider--Tuesday

Protecting Food Plant Workers

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Pressure Continues From Lawmakers On Ag Aid Effort

Some 121 lawmakers penned a letter to President Donald Trump on the ag aid plan being drawn up by USDA, with the letter signed by key lawmakers like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and ranking member of the House Ag Committee Mike Conaway, R-Texas.

The lawmakers pointed out the losses being faced by cattlemen and others in the ag sector and it raised a familiar theme: Relief should not be further reduced by payment limitations “that would harm real family farmers (of both specialty and row crops), ranchers, livestock and dairy producers.” Pay limits “may have a place in Farm Bill debates,” the letter said, “and may even be necessary in the context of trade aid, but if the goal of this emergency package is to support critical infrastructure and industry, it needs to flow in proportion to production, risk, and losses.”

The lawmakers said USDA needs to come up with a payment effort that does “not discriminate against producers who marketed their crop or used risk management practices, including hedging and forward contracts. These are crucial to producers managing enormous risks.”

Plus, the help should not exclude producers of any crop. As for the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) $14 billion borrowing authority that comes available in July, the lawmakers said USDA should “include this amount in this relief package in order to address the concerns we have outlined and offer relief in phases as you did so successfully under the Market Facilitation Program (MFP).”

SBA Issues Guidance On Ag Eligibility For PPP

Agricultural producers, farmers, and ranchers are eligible for small business rescue loans provided they meet certain requirements, according to new Payroll Protection Program (PPP) guidance from the U.S. Treasury Dept. and Small Business Administration (SBA).

Qualifications include having 500 or fewer workers or if the business fits within the revenue-based sized standard, which is average annual receipts of $1 million. Producers, farmers, and ranchers can also qualify if their business meets SBA’s “alternative size standard,” which is defined as having maximum net worth not more than $15 million, and average net income after federal income taxes, excluding any carry-over losses, for two full fiscal years before the application date of not more than $5 million.

Guidance also says agricultural and other forms of cooperatives are eligible to get PPP funds if other requirements are met.

Washington Insider: Protecting Food Plant Workers

As businesses struggle to craft strategies to reopen following the anti-virus shutdown, The Hill is reporting that calls are growing for more protections for meat-plant workers, and that the challenge is daunting.

Recently, Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, shut down a pork processing plant in South Dakota that accounts for up to 5 percent of production after more than 700 of its workers were infected and one died from COVID-19. Tysons Food, Cargill and JBS, have also been forced to close plants after workers were infected.

A USDA spokesperson told The Hill that 137 of its food inspectors have tested positive for the virus. Federal inspectors were directed to find or make their own masks and face coverings on April 9.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, called the USDA directive “troubling" in a letter sent Friday to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “Shortages of personal protective equipment are well known and given the Vice President’s April 16th public pledge to ensure every frontline food worker has a mask, I hope this directive is no longer needed,” Costa wrote.

In a letter to Vice President Pence, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union told the administration to “prioritize the safety and protection of all grocery workers and workers in meatpacking and food processing plants.”

The UFCW told the administration to deploy protective equipment to meat packing plants and mandate social distancing at their workplaces. The union is also asking Vice President Pence to deem its workers eligible for prioritized testing.

“Given the contagious nature of this pandemic and the significant number of workers in these meatpacking plants and processing facilities, the above-mentioned recommendations are among the critical steps that we believe must be adopted as soon as humanly possible,” the letter read.

According to UFCW, more than 5,000 workers have been diagnosed or exposed. The union also requested a halt to line speed waivers, which it says further endanger employees working on slaughter lines. USDA's Food and Safety Inspection Service approved 11 regulatory waivers in the first two weeks of April for poultry plants to increase their maximum line speed.

The pressure to increase line speed has come as the pandemic threatens to create food shortages, The Hill said. Ben Lilliston, interim co-executive director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told The Hill that most of the meat on the market right now was produced in March and most meat producers that experienced closures, are international. He said if these processing plants are closed for an extended period of time and if other meat processing plants in Mexico, Canada and elsewhere also experience shutdowns, consumers could see changes on supermarket shelves.

“These highly-profitable global meat companies need to take a series of protective measures for their workers. That includes slowing down the lines to allow for more social distancing,” he said. “This will ultimately allow the plants to re-open and keep them open. In the longer-term we need to address the vulnerability of this very concentrated system with huge animal operations feeding into huge meat processing plants.”

The UFCW claims 250,000 members who are meat and food-processing workers and represent about 80% of U.S. beef and pork production and 40% of poultry production. Plant workers on a recent conference call organized by the union said they are afraid of falling ill although meat processors have been bleaching hallways and doorways for safety and installing dividers to separate employees. "As far as social distancing, it's almost impossible," said Margarita Heredia, who works in a JBS pork plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. "There's no room."

"We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people," Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said.

The reports from plants and workers across the industry indicate the difficulty of maintaining the distance and other protections necessary to protect workers â?? and the risks have grown both for plant workers and federal employees responsible for protection services, threats that seem to be intensifying.

USDA should increase its attention to these problems as this especially the virulent virus attack intensifies. Washington Insider believes.

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Chris Clayton