The Look in Brief

Trump’s order to keep meat plants open imperils workers, critics say

By: - May 6, 2020 10:00 am
A Tyson Poultry truck backs up to its load dock at a processing plant. (Photo by Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images)

A Tyson poultry truck backs up to its load dock at a processing plant. (Photo by Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images)

Democratic senators are accusing President Donald Trump of putting workers at risk by ordering meat and poultry processors to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Senate Democrats are asking Trump to amend an executive order he signed last week, which declared meat plants to be “critical infrastructure” and ordered his administration to ensure that they continue to operate. 

Trump’s order comes as slaughterhouses around the country have emerged as hot spots for the spread of COVID-19, forcing closures in some locations and disrupting food supply chains. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were at least 115 meat or poultry processing facilities with COVID-19 cases by April 27. More than 4,900 workers had been diagnosed with the disease, and 20 deaths linked to COVID-19 had been reported among those workers. At a Tyson poultry plant in Goodlettsville, 290 of the 1,600 workers have tested positive and two other Middle Tennessee plants have reported cases.

“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,” the Democratic senators wrote last week in a letter to Trump. 

The Democratic senators urged Trump to amend his executive order to mandate that meat plants shuttered by officials or of their own accord could reopen only after meeting safety guidelines. 

Last week, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released new voluntary guidance for meat and poultry processing facilities intended to improve worker safety. Among the suggestions was to keep workers at least six feet apart or put physical barriers between them, “if feasible.” 

But Democrats and some former safety officials want the administration to implement tougher standards. 

Deborah Berkowitz, a former senior policy advisor at OSHA, said on a conference call earlier this month that the “outbreak in meatpacking was not inevitable.”

She added, “It was because of a decision by all big meat companies to not implement basic guidance that the CDC issued back in March to keep everyone six feet apart and prevent the spread of COVID-19 … The companies will continue to prioritize production and profits over worker safety until they are required to implement safe provisions.”

Democrats in the House and Senate are separately pushing for legislation that would require emergency enforceable standards to protect workers from COVID-19 exposure while on the job. 

The House version of the bill has 63 Democratic co-sponsors, including Rep. Steve Cohen, whose 9th District includes Memphis, and one Republican backer, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. At least 20 co-sponsors had signed on to the Senate version of the legislation. 


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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.