Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden joined a chorus of voices demanding stronger workplace protections for meatpacking workers at a virtual town hall on Monday. Workers – falling ill from covid-19 – deserve a safer workplace, higher pay, and immigration protections, lawmakers and advocates said.
Conditions at meatpacking plants are “inhumane and downright immoral, because these workers are essential to our society,” said Biden, the former vice president, at the town hall hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and Univision. “They deserve our respect, they deserve a safe working place, they deserve fair pay [and] extra premium pay to compensate them for the risk they face.”
Biden also advocated that frontline workers, including meatpacking workers, should receive a $13-per-hour premium pay bonus on top of their baseline salaries. “We can afford to do that,” he said. “We have to do that.”
Over the past two months, a crisis has emerged at the country’s meatpacking plants as crowded, unsanitary working conditions gave way to massive outbreaks of Covid-19. Over 6,300 meatpacking plant workers have so far been diagnosed with the disease, according to an analysis by FERN, and at least 32 have died. Outbreaks have occurred at 115 meatpacking plants, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
At the town hall, several family members of meatpacking plant workers spoke of the dangerous conditions that workers face at processing facilities.
“State governors and … food processing plants are letting these workers know with their actions that they don’t care about them, that they’re disposable,” said Edgardo Ramirez, whose father works at a meatpacking plant in Iowa and is currently hospitalized with Covid-19. “My mother cries every night wondering if she’ll ever see my dad again.”
Several members of Congress condemned President Trump’s recent executive order that invokes the Defense Production Act to require meatpacking plants to stay open and overrules the authority of local and state officials who would close meatpacking plants in the interest of public health. Rep. Filemón Vega of Texas called the executive order a “misapplication of [DPA] authority” that puts workers’ lives at risk.
Trump should instead use his executive authority to provide undocumented plant workers with temporary protective status, said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. Roughly a quarter of the nation’s meatpacking workers are undocumented.
“That would send a strong signal that not only are you protecting a vital part of our economy, but we value what you do too,” Rep. Thompson said. “They’re more concerned about the liability of the companies than the health and safety of the workers.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California also called for “top to bottom immigration reform” that would “make sure that all of the individuals working in this industry are treated with dignity and respect in every way. It’s ridiculous that the president is ordering undocumented individuals into these plants … while letting them live in fear of immigration enforcement,” she said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s handling of the crisis at meatpacking facilities was also criticized at the town hall. In the days following Trump’s order, OSHA and the Department of Labor issued a joint statement that suggested the agencies would support meatpackers against potential employee lawsuits if they made a “good faith attempt” to adhere to CDC guidelines for meatpacking plants.
“OSHA should get rigorous enforcement standards and make sure employers are following through,” he said. “OSHA has been absent on the job.”
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has called for an investigation on conditions at meatpacking plants, where more than 40 percent of workers are Latino. It has also called on President Trump to halt deportations of essential workers. Rep. Joaquín Castro of Texas, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said at the town hall that vulnerable meatpacking workers must be protected.
“We need to make sure that we put people over the profits of these large corporations,” he said.