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Meatpackers ordered back to work, but safety issues remain


President Donald Trump on Tuesday 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. Although temporary guidance regarding the protection of workers has been issued, union advocates and workers rights groups are seeking more protection.

Plants in various parts of the country have shut down because of state orders or COVID-19 outbreaks among the workforce. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union estimates that 22 meatpacking plants have closed at some point in the past two months and that at least 20 industry workers have died of COVID-19 and more than 5,000 have shown symptoms, the union said in a statement Tuesday.

Greeley, Colorado-based beef and pork processor JBS USA Holdings Inc. has temporarily shuttered four plants due to COVID-19.

Smithfield Foods Inc., based in Smithfield, Virginia, suspended operations at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pork processing plant on April 12 after news outlets reported that as many as 600 of the plant’s workers had contracted COVID-19. On April 24, the company stopped operations at a plant in Monmouth, Illinois, after some workers tested positive for the virus.

An outbreak at a Tyson Foods Inc. chicken processing plant in Iowa has also been reported; the plant closed April 6.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Sunday released interim guidance for meat and poultry processors. The recommendations include screening employees before they enter the work facility; taking steps to ensure social distancing; providing personal protective equipment; and cleaning shared meatpacking and processing tools.  

JBS said in a statement Monday that it has implemented temperature testing of all workers using hands-free technology or thermal testing equipment, requires workers to wear protective masks at all times, has staggered shift starts and breaks, increased sanitation; and removed “vulnerable populations” from the workforce with full pay, among other measures.

Smithfield said in a statement Wednesday that it would be providing its workers with masks and face shields and had already implemented mass thermal scanning and installed physical barriers on production floors and in break areas. It also said it was evaluating the next steps for opening shuttered facilities.

The Rural Community Workers Alliance, a local workers rights group, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri against Smithfield on April 23, alleging the company’s Milan, Missouri, pork processing plant failed to protect its workers and the surrounding community from COVID-19. The alliance, represented by Washington-based nonprofit legal advocacy group Public Justice, seeks injunctive relief and accuses the company of breaching its duty to “provide its workers with a reasonably safe workplace.”

The UFCW on April 23 sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence 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.

“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first,” the union, which represents about 250,000 meatpacking workers, said in a statement Tuesday. “Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”

Tuesday’s executive order was based on the Defense Production Act.

More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here.