Let them eat meat? Trump to order meat processing plants operating

On April 28, Pres. Trump announced that meat processing plants would stay open to prevent COVID-19 from impacting the national food supply under Defense Production Act.

Unions are fighting back, however, asserting the danger present to workers in keeping the plants open. Just as Smithfield in South Dakota recently closed due to infections, more than 20 meatpacking plants have closed temporarily due to the risk of keeping the plants open amidst the virus outbreak. Even open plants do not operate at full capacity due to sick workers or workers avoiding work to protect themselves.

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union represents 1.3 million food and retail workers. The Union stated that 20 food processing and meatpacking union workers have died from the virus, and that an estimated 6,500 have fallen sick or exposed to COVID.

The 15 largest pork-packing plants account for 60% of all pork processed in the US, and there has so far been a 25% reduction in pig slaughter capacity. As food concerns get serious, the White House is hoping to prevent shortage through the order.

However, the White House is in talks with the Labor Department to increase protection for meatpacking workers, for example, by preventing those over the age of 65 from leaving the home.

Although Trump promises safety to workers, Unions are skeptical. The Union wishes to compel companies to provide protective equipment, make daily testing available, and enforce physical distancing.

These workers often work in close proximity while slicing meat, which makes social distancing nearly impossible. While some companies use staggered breaks, changing start times, and checking workers’ temperatures, it is not enough, Unions warn.

Other companies, however, have seen workers walk off, as their policies force employees from leaving when complaining of symptoms or allowed return of employees even if they were sick after just 2-3 days.

Gov. Noem of South Dakota is an avid supporter of reopening plants, but given her track record of doing not much in protecting workers before the necessitated shutdown of the Smithfield plant, it is a question whether she would enact or enforce any worker-safety related laws.

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