Editor's Note: Article updated with more comment on President Trump's executive order to keep meat processing plants open.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) union today said 5,322 members are not at work and at least 72 are dead due to coronavirus.
That figure includes employees in grocery, retail, pharmacy, meatpacking and other essential industries who tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, have been hospitalized and/or are symptomatic, UFCW said Tuesday.
The announcement, made on Workers Memorial Day, comes as UFCW amplified its call for elected and corporate leaders and U.S. shoppers to take immediate steps to bolster protections for food industry and related workers.
On Tuesday, news reports also surfaced that President Donald Trump aims to issue an executive order that would compel the nation’s meat plants to remain open, despite a recent spike in worker illness and deaths from coronavirus and in facility shutdowns.
“America’s frontline workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, meatpacking plants and many other essential businesses are putting their lives on the line every day to ensure families have the food and medicine they need to stay safe during this crisis. These workers never signed up to be first responders in an emergency. But that is exactly what they are now, and they need protections immediately before more lives are needlessly lost,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone (left) said in a statement.
Just two weeks ago, UFCW had reported nearly 3,000 members not at work and at least 30 deaths due to COVID-19. Overall, the Washington, D.C.-based union has 1.3 million members, including over 900,000 grocery workers.
“The human cost to America’s food, retail and commercial workers is real and growing,” Perrone noted. “From grocery stores to meatpacking plants, from senior care facilities to pharmacies, the impact on workers’ lives from this coronavirus is beyond tragic, and this crisis must be stopped before it gets worse.”
UFCW has undertaken a range of initiatives to spotlight the danger that coronavirus poses to grocery and food industry workers. For example, the union has partnered with supermarket retailers Albertsons Cos., The Kroger Co. and Stop & Shop to help sway federal, state and local government to classify grocery store associates as first responders, which would give them priority access to COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment (PPE).
UFCW also has launched a multimedia campaign called #ShopSmart, which urges grocery shoppers to wear protection and practice social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus between themselves and store personnel. And earlier this month, the union called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue mandatory guidance for safeguarding frontline workers in grocery stores, pharmacies and food processing plants — and the U.S. food and drug supply chain — from COVID-19.
“As we remember all of America’s brave frontline workers, across every industry, who have died from COVID-19, we are calling on all of our country’s leaders in the White House, in Congress, and states across the country to strengthen safety standards and take immediate action to protect the millions of workers who are keeping our communities strong throughout the crisis,” Perrone said. “American lives are on the line. We cannot wait any longer. We need action now.”
Bloomberg reported Tuesday that President Trump plans to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) to keep meat processing plants to open despite facility closings and workers out sick due to coronavirus. Citing an unnamed source, Bloomberg said the federal government deems the industry as critical infrastructure and would supply more PPE to employees and institute additional safety guidelines.
According to a New York Times report, Trump said at a White House event that he expected to sign such an order Tuesday afternoon. The president said meat companies are dealing with liability that is “unfair to them,” and that "there’s plenty of supply,” the Times reported.
Labor leaders quickly reacted to reports that Trump was weighing such a move.
“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products. When poultry plants shut down, it's for deep cleaning and to save workers' lives,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), said Tuesday.
“If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on, as they should have and still must do, this would not even have become an issue. Employers and government must do better,” he explained. “If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy."
Besides retail employees, New York-based RWDSU’s members include workers in the poultry, food processing, grocery and pharmacy business sectors. The union said yesterday it has lost 15 members to COVID-19, and Appelbaum criticized the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for inadequate measures to strengthen safety for workers.
“Our members are scared to go to work, yet they do it because they need to provide for their families. But they shouldn’t be expected to be putting their lives on the line when they show up for work. They never signed up for that,” Appelbaum said in a statement on Monday.
“OSHA has received thousands of requests for enforcement from workers fearful about their workplace exposure to the COVID-19 virus and the failures of their employers. Too many employers have failed to provide necessary personal protective equipment, implement social distancing, expand worksite sanitation and other protective measures. OSHA has not provided any effective response to these requests,” he said. “Only this past weekend has it even issued guidance for workers in meat processing facilities. As a result, workers have and will continue to die. The voluntary guidelines it has issued are insufficient. They have no teeth and employers can, and have, ignored them. These guidelines should be mandatory and enforceable. The agency should issue an Emergency Temporary Standard covering the COVID-19 pandemic, which could actually help workers.”
Estimates that up to 80% of U.S. meat production capacity could be shut are pushing the White House to act, according to Bloomberg. An April 26 blog post by John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, drew widespread attention to the issue when he wrote that “the food supply chain is breaking” and that “millions of pounds of meat will disappear” from the supply chain. His blog also appeared as a full-page ad in The New York Times, Washington Post and other publications.
Tyson Foods is among the major meat suppliers that have closed processing plants due to coronavirus. Others have included Smithfield, Cargill, JBS, Conagra and Sanderson Farms. Bloomberg noted that a DPA order by Trump would impact a range of manufacturing facilities, including those supplying beef, chicken, eggs and pork.
“By keeping meat and poultry producers operating, the president’s executive order will help avert hardship for agricultural producers and keep safe, affordable food on the tables of American families,” North American Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts said in a statement. “The safety of the heroic men and women working in the meat and poultry industry is the first priority. And as it is assured, facilities should be allowed to reopen. We are grateful to the president for acting to protect our nation’s food supply chain.”
The D.C.-based Meat Institute noted that the industry “has and will continue to implement” the CDC and OSHA guidance released Sunday. The recommended measures include testing, temperature checks, face coverings and social distancing for employees where possible, among other steps. The institute said members also have raised pay, offered bonuses, provided paid sick leave and bolstered health benefits.
“Meat and poultry industry employees who continue to show up for work under these difficult circumstances are heroes,” Potts commented about the federal guidance. “It is important for these workers to know that the industry, the federal government and their local health departments all agree worker health and safety is the most important priority as we work together to produce critical food for the nation.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has urged processing facilities, in the event of a closure, to work with state departments of agriculture, state and local health authorities, and the CDC to develop a plan to safely resume operations.
UFCW, which represents about 250,000 meatpacking workers, announced estimates that 22 meatpacking plants have closed — including union and non-union facilities — at some point in the past two months. The union said the shutdowns have impacted more than 35,000 workers and led to an estimated 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity and a 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
“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," UFCW's Perrone stated late Tuesday. "Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers. We urge the administration to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected. Additionally, to protect the food supply and ensure these safety standards for workers are enforced, these plants must be constantly monitored by federal inspectors and workers must have access to representation to ensure their rights are not violated.”
At least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been affected by the virus and are unable to work, and 20 deaths have been confirmed, UFCW reported.
“America’s meatpacking workers and our nation’s food supply are in greater danger every day that companies and leaders fail to act during this outbreak. It is clear that our food supply chain is threatened, and that is why our country’s elected and corporate leaders must act now. Tyson and every company across this vital industry must immediately join with UFCW in calling for federal and state elected leaders to designate these frontline workers as first responders,” Perrone said.
In a letter last week to Vice President Mike Pence, UFCW called for the White House Coronavirus Task Force to prioritize five safety actions for the meatpacking industry: increased worker testing, priority access to PPE, halting line speed waivers, mandating social distancing, and isolating workers with symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.
“Meatpacking companies must increase transparency around their safety efforts to ensure that meatpacking workers, elected leaders and the communities they serve know exactly what steps they are taking to keep workers safe and our food supply secure,” Perrone said.
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