05-05-20 U.S. Senator Bennet Criticizes Trump Decision to Reopen Meat Processing Facilities without Clear Safety Standards, Putting Workers, Nation’s Food Supply at Risk

U.S. Senator Bennet Criticizes Trump Decision to Reopen Meat Processing Facilities without Clear Safety Standards, Putting Workers, Nation’s Food Supply at Risk

President Trump Used Defense Production Act to Compel Meat Processing Facilities to Reopen Despite Lack of Protections for Workers

Washington, D.C. – Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet joined several of his colleagues in urging President Donald Trump to immediately amend his Executive Order and mandate that meat processing facilities reopen only after they have met health and safety guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

President Trump recently used the Defense Production Act (DPA) to compel meat processing facilities to remain open despite poor safety and health standards at many of these facilities, which have led to documented Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections and worker fatalities. This is particularly troubling in light of the administration’s persistent refusal to issue and enforce vital safety standards from OSHA to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19.

The grueling work already makes meat processing one of the most hazardous jobs in the country. Its workers, who are predominantly immigrant and Latino – groups that are already disproportionately impacted by this pandemic – experience some of the highest injury rates. The senators demanded the Trump Administration do more to protect these workers, the public health of their communities, farmers and livestock producers, and the nation’s food supply chain.

“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. Failure to take action to protect these workers is not only a threat to their lives, but also to the public health of their communities,” wrote Bennet and the senators.

They continued: “Despite urgent calls from worker advocates and Members of Congress, your Administration has refused to use its existing authority to issue enforceable OSHA safety standards that employers are required to meet to keep their 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. Your use of DPA to mandate the reopening of these plants could prevent State and local authorities from compelling companies to provide workers with essential protections, and thus being able to keep their communities safe. In doing so, you have effectively signaled to the meat processing industry that they can continue business as usual, without taking further action to protect their workers or public health.”

In Colorado, there have been COVID-19 outbreaks among meatpacking plant employees in Greeley and Fort Morgan. Recently, Bennet joined his colleagues in urging the Trump Administration to help ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply and to protect essential workers in the food supply chain.

The text of the letter is available HERE and below.

Dear President Trump:

We write to express our serious concern about your use of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to compel meat processing facilities to remain open despite poor safety and health standards at those facilities, which have led to documented COVID-19 infections and worker fatalities.  Your action is particularly troubling in light of your Administration’s persistent refusal to issue and enforce vital safety standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect workers from occupational exposure to COVID-19.   Using DPA authorities to force plants that process America’s meat to stay open, reopen or operate without requiring compliance with health and safety standards jeopardizes the lives of the workers at the facilities, risks further spread of the virus in our communities, harms farmers and ranchers, and puts consumers and our country’s meat supply at further risk.

Irresponsibly fast line speeds, physically grueling work, and extremely dangerous machines make the meat processing industry one of the most hazardous in the country, which is why these workers, who are predominantly Black and brown workers, experience some of the highest injury rates.   During the coronavirus pandemic, jobs at meat processing facilities have become markedly more dangerous due to employers’ refusal to listen to the needs of their workers and implement health and safety guidelines to protect them.  Workers in plants across the country report they have not been given the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to use on the job.   In addition, workers continue to complete their tasks in very close proximity to other workers for the duration of their shift because employers have not made adjustments to the line speeds or factory layouts to provide workers with the extra space called for by public health officials.  In fact, your administration just this month approved faster line speeds at chicken processing plants, and at pork processing plants last fall , which means workers are clustered closer together on the line.   Workers also continue to be crowded in break rooms and locker rooms, without being given additional space or other leeway to practice social distancing.

As a result of insufficient worker protections, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, more than 6,500 meat industry workers have contracted COVID-19, and at least 20 have died.   In addition, more than 100 inspectors with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have tested positive for the virus, and at least two food inspectors with the agency have died from the virus.   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.  Failure to take action to protect these workers is not only a threat to their lives, but also to the public health of their communities.

Despite urgent calls from worker advocates and Members of Congress, your Administration has refused to use its existing authority to issue enforceable OSHA safety standards that employers are required to meet to keep their 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.  Your use of DPA to mandate the reopening of these plants could prevent State and local authorities from compelling companies to provide workers with essential protections, and thus being able to keep their communities safe.  In doing so, you have effectively signaled to the meat processing industry that they can continue business as usual, without taking further action to protect their workers or public health.

We urge you to take immediate action to amend your Executive Order to mandate that meat processing facilities closed down by State or local health authorities or of their own accord are permitted to reopen only after they have met all of the safety guidelines issued by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and to require OSHA to enforce that guidance under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.   All facilities that have continued to operate must also be required to meet all OSHA and CDC guidance, including social distancing requirements on production lines and in break and locker rooms.  In addition, your Administration must immediately issue and enforce an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard that requires employers to protect their workers from the spread of the coronavirus at work.  We further urge you to immediately disburse sufficient PPE to all USDA food inspectors to protect the workers who are tasked with keeping our food supply safe.

Americans need access to food during these challenging times.  Farmers and ranchers need to be able to sell their products to processing facilities.  Without the proper health and safety standards in place at processing facilities, workers will continue to be infected with COVID-19 which will hurt production and lead to food supply shortages for consumers and continued low commodity prices for farmers and livestock producers.  Requiring all employers, particularly those in the meat processing industry, to meet worker safety standards is critical to protecting workers and stopping the spread of the coronavirus.  It is also essential to preserving our country’s food supply chain and reopening the economy safely.

Sincerely,

U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D- Nev.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

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