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Sens. Stabenow, Peters Sign Letter Urging Action to Ensure Meat Processing Worker Safety

Byron Center Meats is one of the processing plants in Michigan who will hopefully keep their doors open while practicing safety guidelines to protect workers against the spread of COVID-19. Photo courtesy: Michigan Farm Bureau
Byron Center Meats is one of the processing plants in Michigan who will hopefully keep their doors open while practicing safety guidelines to protect workers against the spread of COVID-19. Photo courtesy: Michigan Farm Bureau

On Friday, a group of 29 Democratic Senators led by U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, raised 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:

  • Create localized working groups for individual plants that include USDA, CDC, OSHA, companies, union representatives, workers, and appropriate state and local authorities to implement plans to safely reopen and ensure all issues are addressed.
  • Advocate for the creation of a White House-led office of supply chain coordination as recommended by 20 key organizations.
  • Ensure that all meat processing facilities operate in accordance with the OSHA and CDC guidance for meat and poultry processing employees.
  • Clarify that the President’s Executive Order does not require 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.
  • Use the Defense Production Act and other contracting authorities to access and produce personal protective equipment and testing.
  • Urge OSHA to vigorously enforce the OSHA and CDC guidance under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act at meat and poultry processing plants.
  • Urge U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene 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.

“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 Stabenow, the letter was signed by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Robert Casey (D-Penn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Gary C. Peters (D-Mich.)

A PDF of the letter is available here.

Source: Sen. Stabenow press release