Industry Continues to Be Hotspot for COVID Infection
State health officials in Idaho announced on Tuesday, May 26, that dozens of employees at one of the state’s meatpacking facilities recently tested positive for COVID-19. To date, none of the workers at the Ida-Beef plant in rural Burley has been hospitalized. Another meatpacking facility, in Vernon, California, has reported more than 150 confirmed cases of the coronavirus among its workers, leading the local union to call for the suspension of operations at the plant. In South Dakota and Iowa, officials estimate that one of every five meatpacking plant workers has contracted the virus.
Meatpacking facilities have been a glaring hotspot for COVID infection for a couple months. In response to concerns that many plants would close and lead to an interruption in the American food chain, President Trump signed an executive order on April 28, 2020, classifying meat plants as “essential infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act (DPA). The DPA grants the executive branch of the government certain powers to compel private industry to operate in the interests of national defense. The executive order states that the administration will “take all appropriate action” to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with federal health and workplace safety guidance.
The order also states that the federal government will stand up for companies that face litigation related to or arising out of worker exposure to COVID-19. Though there’s no language in the order that forces closed companies to reopen, or that requires workers to go in, many industry observers fear that the language will be perceived by meatpacking executives as a government-imposed “waiver of liability” for any potential legal ramifications of reopening plants. They also fear that workers will be put in the untenable position of having to choose between working in a potentially unsafe environment or losing their jobs.
By May 21, nearly 50 meatpacking plants had closed across the United States. To date, 14 of those have reopened. While some plants are open with limited operations, many are conducting “business as usual.”
Government officials say that conditions in the slaughterhouses are ideal for the spread of the virus. Workers are typically shoulder-to-shoulder, and the pace of work makes it difficult to keep on a mask. In addition, the virus is easily transmitted via blood and other bodily fluids that are everywhere in the meatpacking process. The CDC recommends workers be at least six feet apart and staggering shifts to minimize the number of workers in the plant at any given time.
In response to concerns about safety, meatpacking workers are employing a number of different tactics. There have been strikes in many states. Many workers are taking vacation and sick time, hoping that the virus will run its course before they have to return. One plant in Colorado says up to a third of its workers are calling in sick.
Protecting the Food Chain or Protecting Big Profits?
The language of the executive order suggests that it was motivated primarily by concerns over the availability of meat to the American public. John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Products, took out full-page advertisements in a number of national newspapers on Sunday, April 26, contending that the “food supply chain is breaking” and expressing concern that, without executive action, “millions of pounds of meat would disappear” from grocery stores nationwide. While there are around 800 federally-inspected meatpacking plants in the United States, more than 95% of all meat processing is done in about 50 of those plants. When just one plant shuts down, the law of supply and demand kicks in and prices go up (the price of beef went up 5% from March to April). If too many shut down, the supply can quickly disappear.
Skeptics, however, point to huge export deals that many of the meatpacking companies have, which in many instances account for about one third of all production. In prior uses of the Defense Production Act to respond to critical needs during the COVID-19 crisis, affected companies have been required to limit export of goods so that America’s needs can be met. However, the executive order governing the meatpacking companies contains no language limiting exports. Thus far, the president has indicated that he has no plans to limit the export of meat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Actual Impact Thus Far
The executive order mandates that meatpacking companies comply with the COVID-19 guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control, which include the use of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and appropriate social distancing. Worker advocates say social distancing guidelines are virtually impossible to implement in the meatpacking industry. Plant officials say they have tried to implement social distancing and obtain additional protective equipment but note that there are other challenges that make meatpacking workers more susceptible to the coronavirus, including hygiene, living, and transportation conditions. Furthermore, hospitals and medical professionals are still struggling to get the protective gear they need—the meatpacking plants have not had much success, either.