AGs: Mandate COVID-19 Safety at Plants

Attorneys General Ask Trump for More Enforcement of COVID-19 Guidelines

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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The attorneys general in 20 states asked President Donald Trump to enforce COVID-19 safety guidelines in meatpacking plants. (Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Attorneys general from 20 states asked President Donald Trump on Tuesday to enforce COVID-19 safety standards in meatpacking plants after the president issued an executive order on April 28 requiring those plants to remain open.

In a letter sent to Trump, the attorneys general of Democratic-governed Maryland, California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, said meatpacking workers were "risking their lives" to keep facilities running.

Last week, USDA announced that 14 packing plants were reopening in the coming days in response to Trump's invoking of the Defense Production Act.

Numerous plants across the country have had to close entirely or were forced to dial back production as a result of plant workers becoming ill with COVID-19.

"Your action purporting to force plants to stay open and employees to continue working must be accompanied by the enforcement of standards to ensure the safety of these essential workers," the letter said.

"Already considered some of the most dangerous workplaces in America, the crisis of COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation's meat and poultry processing operations is dire and escalating. Recent reports indicate that over 10,000 COVID-19 cases have been tied to these outbreaks, and at least 45 workers have died. Infection clusters at 40 plants have been so severe they have been required to close for some period, with some reporting hundreds of employees falling ill."

The attorneys general told Trump the executive order to keep packing plants open will not be effective without requiring plants to implement federal safety measures, supported by plant inspections.

"Without adequate and enforceable mandates to protect worker safety, your executive order may perpetuate this spread of illness and death," the letter said.

"The order directs the secretary of USDA to take actions to ensure the continued supply of meat and poultry 'consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA.'"

The executive order, however, does state packers should follow federal guidance in securing plants. The order also says the U.S. secretary of agriculture is required to ensure meat and poultry plants continue operations "consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by CDC and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)."

The guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state AGs said, provides a series of recommendations regarding steps processing facilities should take to promote safe working conditions.

"Even if these recommendations were sufficient to maintain worker safety, however, they are entirely voluntary," the attorneys general said.

"Without making these standards mandatory and taking decisive action to enforce them, the administration will fail in its duty to provide meaningful protection to workers that have been deemed essential to maintaining our food supply. The toll may be thousands more falling victim to this disease. In addition, the administration will thwart its own goal of keeping the plants open, as increasing prevalence of COVID-19 infection results in mounting labor shortages."

The attorneys general expressed concern about USDA efforts in the past two weeks to approve line-speed waivers, although meatpacking plant employees work close together.

"Grueling workplace conditions in the industry often require thousands of employees to stand shoulder to shoulder for hours, sometimes close enough to accidentally cut coworkers," the letter said.

"Even as recently as these last two weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved over a dozen new line speed waivers, which force employees to work faster and even closer to one another, reduce the number of federal safety inspectors at plants, and shift inspection duties to employees."

The states asked the administration to "take immediate action" in requiring plants conduct priority testing for workers, "immediate" access to personal protective equipment, suspension of line-speed waivers, social distancing between workers including plexiglass barriers, as well as isolating workers found to be virus-positive.

"The Defense Production Act is an important tool that presidents since the Korean War have wielded to protect the country and keep Americans safe from threats to national security and public health," the letter said.

"Yet your executive order, rather than using the DPA to compel production of the supplies necessary to keep essential and frontline workers safe, attempts instead to invoke the law to make them show up for work regardless."

Read the letter here: https://oag.ca.gov/….

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley