Trump signs order to keep meat plants open
President Donald Trump invoked his powers under the Defense Production Act last Tuesday when he signed an executive order directing Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to “take all appropriate action” to keep meat and poultry processing plants open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the order does not explicitly prohibit meatpacking plants from closing, it states that recent actions in some states, which have led to the complete closure of some large processing facilities, “may differ from or be inconsistent with interim guidance recently issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
According to the CDC’s website, workers in critical infrastructure plants such as meat and poultry processing facilities may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community. Yet the CDC also says infected people who are not showing symptoms can still spread the virus.
Prior to Trump’s order, a total of five Smithfield Foods plants nationwide had closed due to COVID-19, the most recent being a sausage plant in St. Charles, Ill., which shuttered as a result of an April 25 order from the Kane County, Ill. Health Department.
“We are taking the order under advisement with our state attorney’s office,” said Susan Stack, communications coordinator for the Kane County Health Department, when asked if the St. Charles plant would have to reopen.
Lisa Martin, director of corporate communications for Smithfield Foods, indicated via email that the company is evaluating its next steps to open the currently-shuttered Smithfield facilities, but did not provide details as to when or how this would occur. The company also issued a statement of support for Trump’s order, stating that it would safeguard the country’s food supply, as well as protect the livelihood of millions of American farmers who raise livestock intended for meat processing plants.
Dr. Benjamin Melusky, an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University whom Windsor Weekly contacted for an expert opinion on this particular presidential action, agreed that nothing in Trump’s executive order actually compels meatpacking plants to reopen or remain open.
“What this order does, however, is vest in the secretary of agriculture powers necessary to assist meat processing companies in trying to remain open, or reopen should they choose,” Melusky said. “Unless conditions within the United States deteriorate to the point at which the national defense is compromised and compels the U.S. government to actually go about making a very large contractual order with one or more of these companies, plants can remain closed/open at this discretion of the owners.”
The CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration each released guidance earlier this week, which Melusky said the U.S. Department of Labor is interpreting to mean that because Trump invoked the DPA, neither states nor localities can force any meat processing plant to close, to remain closed, or to operate in accordance with procedures other than those outlined in CDC/OSHA guidance.
“As part of staying open, or reopening, the meat processing companies, per the CDC/OSHA guidelines, will need to follow social distancing guidance and have a written plan for each facility for how it plans to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19,” he said. “The murky element to this is that these changes, which representatives from some major meat processing companies have said will cost millions to reconfigure facilities and equipment, are driven by guidelines, but not strict requirements. While some companies, like Tyson, have started instituting some protections such as installing partitions between workstations and taking employee temperatures at shift change, there have been some reports that bathroom and meal breaks are still being taken as a shift and not in compliance with social distance guidelines.”
Keira Lombardo, Smithfield Foods’ executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, had previously stated in an April 24 press release that the labor-intensive, assembly-line-style work environment at meatpacking plants is not designed for social distancing.
“Employees often work in close proximity on production lines,” she said. “Similarly, space constraints exist in common areas such as cafeterias, break and locker rooms and bathrooms.”
The company has, however, implemented other CDC-recommended precautions, she said, such as not penalizing workers for missing work due to COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine, installing extra hand washing stations and physical barriers, increasing personal protective equipment, restricting non-essential visitors, enhancing cleaning at its facilities and using thermal scanners to determine if an employee is running a fever. Those who are quarantined are mandated to remain so for 14 days, during which time they will continue to receive pay.
“The big issue with all of this remains liability,” Melusky said. “As long as a meat processing company which remains open or reopens attempts to comply with these guidelines, the Department of Labor will not cite these companies and further, the federal government will support them should they face legal action by employees of these companies.”
“This does set up murky legal territory for employees who feel unsafe returning to work despite changes,” Melusky added. “We very well could see workers not returning to work or striking, as indicated in statements by the United Food and Commercial Workers union in response to this executive order.”
The UFCW, in response to Trump’s executive order, called upon the White House to immediately increase worker testing, access to PPE and federal oversight at all U.S. meatpacking plants.
“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected,” said UFCW President Mark Perrone via a prepared statement released the same day as Trump’s executive order. “The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak.”