We Need More Than “Good Faith” to Protect the Lives of Meatpacking Workers, Their Families

By Charlotte Brody, RN, Vice President of Health Initiatives for the BlueGreen Alliance

April 30, 2020

Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat-processing plants open. The President’s Executive Order does much more than keep the poultry and pork production lines running. His action further attempts to shield Smithfield, Tyson, Perdue, JBS, and the other meat and poultry giants from any liability for worker harms, in an industry that has already seen extraordinary Covid-19 exposures and deaths.

Or to use less legalistic language, Trump is putting the Presidential Seal on forcing workers into unsafe conditions in meat processing plants.

It didn’t need to be like this. The president could have stood at the podium with the Secretary of Labor and announced an emergency OSHA standard for meat and poultry processing workers and employers. He could have explained that this will necessitate some big changes in how processing plants run, but that CDC, USDA, and OSHA experts are being dispatched to help. Trump could have said that we can have beef burgers and safe workers too. But he didn’t.

Instead, OSHA put out a guidance document. To quote OSHA’s own explanation of the difference between guidance and a standard: “This guidance is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations.” As in, you are free to ignore this advice. And then—if that wasn’t enough—the Department of Labor issued a memo that promised that the Department of Labor would not enforce the guidelines for meat and poultry workers. But even that wasn’t enough. The DOL memo further committed the agency to the side of the meat and poultry companies if workers file any lawsuits or if the courts or the states try to protect processing workers by turning the guidelines into rules.

… the Department of Labor issued a memo that promised that the Department of Labor would not enforce the guidelines for meat and poultry workers.

The Trump administration awarded this gift—that is unavailable to the factories making personal protective equipment or ventilators—to an industry already notorious for its danger and disregard for its workforce — a workforce that is predominately made up of people of color. Failing to require protections for these workers—while also failing to use the DPA to mandate the production of the equipment we need to stay safe—is both morally and legally unjustified. Instead, the administration has said that all companies must do is show “good faith attempts to follow” the safety guidance. And the definition of what is good faith is completely up to them. Protecting the lives of American workers needs more than the Trump version of good faith.

And the definition of what is good faith is completely up to them [the companies].

We are already in the middle of the worst occupational safety and health disaster since the birth of OSHA 50 years ago. Nurses, EMTs, retail workers, bus drivers, and janitors have all lost their lives to the COVID virus. At least 20 meat and poultry processing workers and two government inspectors have already died.

What Trump did yesterday will make the problem even worse. So what do we do? Everything we can.

Trump could have said that we can have beef burgers and safe workers too. But he didn’t.

Congress should act on H.R. 6559 that would require OSHA within 7 days to issue an enforceable Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), based on CDC guidance, to protect all workers from exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. State and local leaders and grocery chains should insist on a higher than Trump level of meat packing safety.

If only some of us are in this together, then the sum of us need to do everything we can to save the lives of the women and men in the meat and poultry processing industry.