Late on Tuesday, April 28, President Trump issued an executive order forcing meat processing plants to stay open despite the severe public health risk involved in operating as usual under the coronavirus outbreak. In states across the country, meat plants have become hot spots for the virus, with at least 20 known deaths and more than 5,000 cases.
As of last week, 13 meatpacking and processing plants had experienced closures at some point over the last two months, which resulted in a 25% reduction in the country’s pork slaughter capacity. In response to these closures, Trump declared the processing plants “critical infrastructure” in order to keep facilities open and prevent food shortages.
A New York Times article from ten days prior, April 18, reported that “some meat companies have expressed reluctance to test workers, saying such targeted testing creates the false impression that meat plants are the main culprits for the spread of the virus. The more aggressively employees are tested, the more cases emerge, putting pressure on plants to shut down”.
As is the case with many other low-wage, dangerous, and difficult jobs in the US, the work in meat processing plants is mostly done by the most marginal communities across the country. Many of these workers are women, most are people of color, and nearly one-third are immigrants, many of whom are undocumented.
Unions and labor activists have pushed back against the reopening of plants, where workers stand inches apart to maximize productivity. While the CDC and OSHA issued voluntary guidelines to encourage workers to stand the recommended six feet apart, food safety experts argue that these are unenforceable and futile.
Marc Perrone, International President of United Food and Commercial Workers, America’s largest meatpacking union, issued a statement on April 28 demanding that these essential workers are safe by providing personal protective equipment, enforcing physical distance, making daily testing available to workers and communities, providing full paid sick leave for infected workers, and ensuring constant federal monitoring and access to representation to protect workers from exploitation.
Because the plants are opening under inadequate public health standards, workers have to choose between losing pay and risking contracting COVID-19. In many states, governors are warning that laid off workers will lose unemployment benefits if they refuse to return when their employer allows them to work.
These state unemployment mandates are impacting and will continue to impact the most marginalized communities most– women, people of color, immigrants, and undocumented people.
Sources: New York Times 4/28/20; UFCW 4/28/20; New York Times 4/18/20; Human Rights Watch 9/04/19; KTTC 4/28/20