Last week, the UFCW sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging Secretary Sonny Perdue to take a series of immediate actions to protect meatpacking and food processing workers and our nation’s food supply during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, including testing and access to personal protective equipment (PPE). The UFCW also sent a letter to Vice President Pence, who leads the White House Coronavirus Task Force, urging him to prioritize the same safety actions for these workers. The UFCW represents more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers across the country.
In the letters to USDA Secretary Perdue and Vice President Pence, the UFCW outlined five immediate steps to protect meatpacking and food processing workers as follows:
- Prioritize Essential Workers for Testing: In order to ensure the health and safety of workers and protect the food supply, essential workers, such as those in meatpacking and food processing, must be prioritized for testing.
- Immediate Access to PPE: Though social and physical distancing are essential to preventing the spread of COVID-19, workers still need access to PPE, such as masks and gloves. The reality is that many of our members lack the critical personal protection equipment necessary to do their job and reduce the risk of exposure. It is essential that the USDA, in conjunction with the White House Task force, prioritize all meatpacking and food workers for PPE to ensure the health and safety of these workers and to protect our food supply.
- Immediate Halt On Line Speed Waivers: In the first two weeks of this month, the USDA’s Food and Safety Inspection Service approved 11 regulatory waivers for poultry plants to increase their maximum line speed. Rather than protect our food supply and workers, these waivers guarantee that workers are more crowded along a meatpacking line and more workers are put at risk of either catching or spreading the virus. It is critical that the USDA immediately cease granting any new waivers and suspend all existing waivers that allow plants to operate at faster speeds.
- Mandate Social Distancing Where Possible: In order to responsibly protect workers and prevent spread of the disease, companies must enforce and practice six-foot social and physical distancing to the greatest extent possible, even if this means production slows down. Where distancing is not possible, companies should use plexiglass barriers to separate and protect workers, and/or ensure that all workers are provided with masks that can safely be used under these extreme conditions.
- Isolate Workers Who Show Symptoms or Test Positive for COVID-19: In light of the largest outbreak to date at Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, it is critical to identify and isolate workers who have tested positive or who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. These workers should be allowed to quarantine at home, with pay, per the recommendations set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a press conference call last week, the UFCW released updates on the serious and deadly impact of the COVID-19 virus. Based on the most recent UFCW internal estimates, 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have died. In addition, at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus. The estimates of those meatpacking and processing workers directly impacted includes individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, or have been hospitalized and/or are symptomatic.
New estimates also show that 22 plants, both union and nonunion, have closed at some point in the past two months. These closures have impacted over 35,000 workers and reduced pork slaughter capacity by 25 percent and beef slaughter capacity by 10 percent.
During the conference call, the threat to America’s meatpacking workforce was highlighted in very personal terms by five workers who discussed the significant risks they and their coworkers are facing every day in some of the nation’s largest meatpacking facilities. Among the specific risks highlighted by these workers was the challenge posed by a lack of PPE, as well as increased line speeds which make social distancing all but impossible.
“America’s food processing and meatpacking workers are in extreme danger, and our nation’s food supply faces a direct threat from the coronavirus outbreak. If workers in these plants are as essential as our elected leaders say, then it’s about time that our elected leaders provide them with the essential protections they need. Make no mistake, without national safety standards to protect these workers from the coronavirus– more lives will be lost, more workers will be exposed, and our food supply will face jeopardy,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone.
“Across this country, we are seeing the impact when the government fails to take steps to protect these essential workers. It needs to both provide testing and protective equipment and issue clear and direct safety guidelines that companies can and must enforce. This is not just about whether we will have enough beef, chicken, and pork to feed our families. It is – for these workers – a matter of life and death,” Perrone added.
You can read the USDA letter here and the letter to Vice President Pence here.