Meat plants should slow the line, separate workers, say unions

Whether by legislation or regulation, the government should order meatpackers to slow the work pace at typically crowded processing plants and separate workers to reduce the risk of coronavirus outbreaks, said two labor unions on Wednesday. The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union said during a House hearing that “some responsible employers, like Cargill and Safeway, have done what is right,” with hazard pay for essential workers, while companies such as Amazon, Walmart, and Kroger have not.

“To be clear, we are determined to fight as hard as we can, but a company-by-company strategy is not enough, and too many workers are being left out,” said the UFCW’s Anthony Perrone, who called for job protection and a minimum of 14 days of paid sick leave for all workers. “Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal government agency in charge of ensuring that employers provide safe conditions, must issue enforceable requirements specific to Covid-19. To date that has not happened, and our members, especially those in healthcare and food processing, are feeling the consequences.”

Some 225 UFCW members have died of Covid-19 and more than 28,000 have become ill or were exposed to the coronavirus, said Perrone. The 1.3 million-member union represents grocery, meatpacking, food processing, healthcare, chemical plant, retail, and senior care workers.

According to data collected by FERN, at least 86 meatpacking workers had died and more than 24,719 employees had tested positive for Covid-19 as of midday Wednesday.

“To be clear, OSHA can not only identify and punish the companies that are failing to protect workers, the USDA can direct plants to reduce line speeds and mandate social distancing inside the plants,” said Perrone, one of six witnesses called to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), whose members include meat inspectors at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said meatpacking plants were Covid-19 hotbeds.

“FSIS inspectors lack adequate PPE [personal protective equipment] and social distancing protocols. AFGE urges Congress to include language in the next Covid-19 legislative package mandating that meatpacking plants slow down their line speeds to allow workers and inspectors to spread out and follow CDC guidelines,” said the union in a written statement filed with the committee.

Perrone said workers in essential industries such as the food sector deserve so-called hero pay, and quoted a Kroger grocery cashier in Indiana who said, “It felt like a slap in the face” to lose the premium.

“Some responsible employers, like Cargill and Safeway, have done what is right,” said Perrone. “Others, including Amazon, Walmart, and even union employers like Kroger, have decided to put profits over people.”

To watch a video of the hearing or to read written testimony, click here.