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A coalition of 20 attorneys general sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Tuesday asking the president to issue enforceable measures to protect the safety and health of meatpacking and poultry processing workers from COVID-19.
“The President must do more to ensure that meat- and poultry-processing plants are safe places to work during the pandemic,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, one of the signatories on the letter, said in a statement Tuesday. “No workers in these plants should have to risk their lives to create food for us to eat.”
President Trump on April 28 signed an executive order directing meat and poultry processors to continue operations to the maximum extent possible to prevent disruption to the country’s food supply chain.
Two days earlier, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued temporary guidance for the protection of workers in the meatpacking and poultry processing industry. While this guidance is comprehensive, it remains voluntary, and the U.S. Department of Labor stated in a memo dated April 28 that OSHA will enforce this guidance at its “discretion” but is asking employers to conduct their own worksite assessments to identify COVID-19 risks and implement prevention strategies.
“The CDC and OSHA guidance must be strengthened and made mandatory, with vigorous and robust federal enforcement,” the coalition of attorneys general wrote in the letter.
More than 115 meat and poultry processing facilities in 19 states have reported workers infected with COVID-19, the CDC said in a report released in late April. The industry, which employs about 130,000 workers, has reported 20 deaths and nearly 5,000 cases, the agency said.
Workers in the meat and poultry processing industries are back on the job throughout the United States, but reports of COVID-19 infections among plant workers and questions about safety protocols and government guidance could leave employers exposed to liability and workers compensation claims, experts say.
Failure to adequately implement safety protocols could leave plants open to liability in the form of workers compensation and death benefits claims, and even personal injury lawsuits if a community outbreak that is tied to a plant occurs.
In second-highest number of known COVID-19 cases in Minnesota was reported in somewhat rural Stearns County, which is home to two major poultry processing plants, according to the state’s attorney general.
Worker advocacy groups have also sent letters to the Trump Administration and government agencies seeking additional safety and enforcement measures for the industry. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence on April 23 asking the government to prioritize safety for the meatpacking industry through increased worker testing, priority access to personal protective equipment, handling line speed waivers, maintaining social distancing and isolating workers with symptoms or positive COVID-19 tests.
The Centers for Food Safety and the Food Chain Workers Alliance filed a rulemaking petition on May 4 with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, urging the agency to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect meat and poultry processing workers.
The petition argued that a lack of enforceable standards could lead to COVID-19 community spread, affect job performance and potentially hamper the safety of the country’s meat and poultry supply.
More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here.
Several animal welfare groups and the Government Accountability Project have filed a lawsuit over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2018 increase of poultry slaughter line speed limits.