WASHINGTON D.C. – U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) joined a group of 28 Democratic senators raising new concerns about the Trump administration’s Executive Order that has pressured meat processing plants to open without verifying the necessary safety measures to protect workers and the food supply. In a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Senators outlined recommendations for ways the Administration should improve worker safety.
“While we recognize the importance of keeping these plants running, it is wrong and shortsighted to use the Defense Production Act to mandate plants to stay open without effectively addressing worker safety issues,” wrote the senators. “Prematurely reopening or pressuring unsafe plants to stay open could expose employees to COVID-19. This could then sicken more workers and their families, spread the virus in their communities, and cause further damage to our food supply chain, farmers and ranchers, and rural economies.”
While the administration has applauded the reopening of several plants after the Executive Order, USDA officials in congressional briefings could not confirm that the plants were operating in accordance with CDC and OSHA guidance. USDA officials in the briefing said the Department had not consulted with plant workers or relevant unions on safety issues.
The senators urged USDA to ensure that meatpacking plants take sufficient actions to protect worker safety before opening, including reconfiguring the plants to allow for social distancing, providing appropriate personal protective equipment, instituting ongoing testing, ensuring that infected employees are not coming to work, and making other necessary changes to keep workers safe. The Senators also urged USDA to:
“In these uncertain times, we appreciate that you have asked for recommendations to protect the food supply chain,” wrote the Senators. “Without strong leadership and creative solutions from the USDA, the risk to the country’s food supply and families in rural communities will only continue to increase.”
In addition to Senator Brown, the letter was signed by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Tom Carper (D-DE), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tina Smith (D-MN), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Robert Casey (D-PA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Doug Jones (D-AL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), and Gary C. Peters (D-MI)
The full text of the letter is below. A PDF of the letter is available here.
Dear Secretary Perdue,
We write regarding your work pursuant to Executive Order 13917 classifying meat and poultry processing facilities as critical and strategic materials under the Defense Production Act. While we recognize the importance of keeping these plants running, it is wrong and shortsighted to use the Defense Production Act to mandate plants to stay open without effectively addressing worker safety issues. Reopening closed plants must be done in consultation with and with the support of the workers, their union representatives, companies, and local and state health officials. Prematurely reopening or pressuring unsafe plants to stay open could expose employees to COVID-19. This could then sicken more workers and their families, spread the virus in their communities, and cause further damage to our food supply chain, farmers and ranchers, and rural economies. Building confidence in safety measures and creating trust between communities, workers, and companies is the only path to rebuilding our food supply chain with reduced risk of future outbreaks, worker deaths, and closures.
As COVID-19 has ripped through our nation, meat processing plants have emerged as hotspots, with employees contracting the virus at very high rates. According to internal estimates by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, as of May 12, over 3,200 meat processing plant employees have been directly impacted by COVID-19, and at least 35 have died. Additionally, over 190 USDA Food Safety Inspection Service employees have also contracted the virus, and four have died from it.
We are concerned the Executive Order has put pressure on plants to reopen and that USDA is not taking sufficient measures to ensure the plants are operating consistent with federal safety guidance.
The President’s Executive Order directs you to take appropriate actions to ensure the plants continue operating consistent with the guidance for meat and poultry processing employers jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA. However, based on a recent USDA briefing with staff of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, we understand that USDA officials could not confirm if the plants that reopened since the issuance of the Executive Order are operating in accordance with the CDC and OSHA guidance. They instead stated that it was their expectation that the plants were following the guidelines. According to USDA officials, they expected the plants to follow the CDC/OSHA guidance to the extent they can.
We are also concerned that the USDA officials in the briefing said the Department had not consulted with plant workers or relevant unions on safety issues or needed improvements. They repeatedly said that worker safety was OSHA’s responsibility, however, USDA officials did not indicate that they had spoken to OSHA during the process of reopening twelve plants this past week or that OSHA had visited the plants.
At the same time, many stakeholders are seeking help to improve health and safety and other conditions at the plants. For example, governors and mayors are reaching out to the federal government for help with testing. Recently, 20 organizations representing the food supply chain wrote to President Trump requesting additional support and coordination, noting that the scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE) could lead to shutdowns in the food sector. These organizations requested the creation of a White House-led office for supply chain coordination. We urge you to consider, fulfill, and advocate for these requests.
This crisis has underscored that worker health and safety must come first. Meat processing plants should only operate in a manner that ensures worker health and safety, including reconfiguring the plants to allow for social distancing, providing appropriate personal protective equipment, instituting ongoing comprehensive testing, ensuring that infected or sick employees are not coming to work, and making other necessary changes so that workers can avoid COVID-19 exposure.
It is critical that you and the Administration clarify that nothing in the President’s Executive Order requires meat processing plants to stay open and the plants should only operate in accordance with the OSHA and CDC guidelines and any other requirements from state or local authorities.
Additionally, we request that under the Executive Order, you ensure that all meat and poultry processing facilities operate in accordance with the OSHA and CDC guidance for meat and poultry processing employees and protect the workers from COVID-19 and that you institute a plan for monitoring and enforcement of that guidance.
It is concerning that the President has justified the use of the Defense Production Act with the goal of keeping plants open and suggested providing liability protection to meat processing companies, yet hesitated to use it to protect workers. We urge you and the Administration to use the authorities of the Defense Production Act and other contracting authorities as necessary to access and produce appropriate personal protective equipment, sufficient and ongoing testing, and support for workers who test positive. Without adequate testing and safety measures, COVID-19 will continue to spread through food processing plants and surrounding communities.
Workers deserve to go to work and return home safe and healthy. They must be confident that their plants are safe places to work. Otherwise, reopened plants will continue to have high rates of absenteeism. We strongly urge you to convene localized working groups for individual plants that include USDA, CDC, OSHA, companies, union representatives, workers, and appropriate state and local authorities. Working together to solve the safety issues by implementing a plan to safely reopen and respecting workers’ voice in that process will help to make sure all issues are addressed and build trust with the employees. If employees believe they are safe, the plants will have a stronger workforce and will be able to better maintain production.
We also ask that you urge OSHA to vigorously enforce the joint CDC-OSHA guidance under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act at meat and poultry processing plants. We further ask you to urge Secretary Scalia to immediately issue and enforce an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard that requires employers to protect their workers from the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces. This is a necessary step in reopening our economy.
We both agree that we must keep our food supply chain strong for consumers and producers. In these uncertain times, we appreciate that you have asked for recommendations to protect the food supply chain. Without strong leadership and creative solutions from the USDA, the risk to the country’s food supply and families in rural communities will only continue to increase. Reopening plants without adequate health and safety measures – including slower processing speeds as necessary will only further harm workers, disrupt the food supply chain, and hurt consumers and producers. This is not a partisan issue. This is a matter of taking necessary actions to help stop the spread of COVID-19 so we can protect public health and reopen our economy. We ask you to work with us to stand with food workers and their communities to help solve this problem and avoid actions that could further spread COVID-19 into rural America.
Please respond to the following questions by May 25, 2020.
Thank you for your prompt response to our questions.