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May 8, 2020

4 min. read

Stop Sacrificing Meatpacking Workers’ Lives 

This week in response to the Trump Administration’s April 28th announcement that it would invoke the Defense Production Act to compel meatpacking companies to stay open during the pandemic, Farm Forward joined nearly 100 food, labor, and environmental allies to show broad support for frontline foodworkers.  

This executive order could impact 194,000 processing workers around the country who are still on the job. Reports from the ground tell us that workers—the majority of whom are immigrants and workers of color—are still at grave risk. Meatpacking plants are not practicing social distancing, not providing adequate PPE to workers, and are not sufficiently sanitizing plants to limit exposure to risk.  

Sending meatpacking workers back to work without protections and mandatory standards is sending workers to die or to get sick,” says Axel Fuentes of the Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA).

RCWA has filed a lawsuit against a Smithfield plant in an effort to force the company to protect workers’ health and safety. “If we have to fight in courts to make only one plant provide safety equipment to workers, can you imagine what will be required to compel other employers to act?” Reports show that over 5,000 meat processing workers have tested positive for the virus and at least 20 workers have died1 due to COVID-19 exposure2. Over 100 USDA inspectors have also tested positive. These deaths could have been prevented and are a tragic failure of government oversight to ensure workplace health and safety.  

House Labor and Education Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott highlighted this in his April 28 statement, “If President Trump orders people to work in meat processing  plants but refuses to protect their health and safety, the result will be more preventable illnesses [and] the tragic deaths of workers across the country.” On April 21 he also introduced bill H.R. 6559- COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020 in an attempt to require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to promulgate an emergency temporary standard to protect employees from occupational exposure to SARS–CoV–2, and for other purposes. 

Furthermore, we understand this measure and Trump’s remarks are intended to give companies the message that they will be protected from liability. This message was reinforced in an April 28th statement by the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA). This tells workers and neighboring communities that if their health and safety rights are violated they will have little recourse to improve their situation, effectively intimidating workers from protecting themselves. Furthermore, workers who are opting to stay home to protect their health and the health of their families are being told they will be denied unemployment benefits. This is a clear tactic of intimidation and retaliation. OSHA has also failed to ensure workers are protected from the virus and its impacts, refusing to issue mandatory health and safety standards for employers that require companies to protect frontline food chain workers and other workers at risk. With the refusal to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard, OSHA has allowed companies to continue to evade responsibility for worker deaths and exposure to illness. At a time when frontline workers still do not have basic health and safety workplace protections and are dying on the job, we must strengthen worker protections–not weaken them. A failure to act will result in the needless loss of more lives, and more family members mourning their loved ones in communities across the country. As regulatory agency leadership and public servants, it is their civil duty to do everything within their authority to ensure workers are kept safe in the workplace. 

In solidarity with all frontline food workers—many of whom are taking courageous action to organize for better protections on the job—we urge the following: 

  • OSHA must issue and enforce an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect food workers and all essential workers from COVID-19. 
  • Congress must immediately pass legislation to: 
    • Compel OSHA to issue an enforceable Emergency Temporary Standard—as is laid out in H.R. 6559—and provide OSHA with commensurate funds to implement this mandate.  
    • Mandate employers to provide premium pay at a minimum of time and half to all workers given the increasingly hazardous, deadly conditions. 

Sending workers into unsafe workplaces without adequate protection is completely unacceptable and will lead to more illness and deaths, both for workers, and for surrounding communities. Food workers are not disposable. Public health must be a priority over profits. We expect swift action to ensure workers’ and communities’ health and safety. 

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Last Updated

May 8, 2020




For more estimates on meat and non-meat processing worker deaths, see reporting from Leah Douglas: