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'Essential workers are not disposable workers': Attorney General Ellison urges President to protect meat-packing workers

Joins coalition of 20 AGs in letter urging meaningful safety measures following President’s Executive Order to keep meat-processing plants open during pandemic


May 12, 2020 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison today joined a coalition of 20 attorneys general in a letter to President Trump that calls on him to take immediate action to ensure the health and safety of employees of meat- and poultry-processing plants. On April 28, Trump signed an Executive Order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat and poultry processing plants open, despite widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 in these facilities. With the Order, the President deemed the employees of these plants essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing them to continue working without imposing enforceable measures that are adequate to protect their health and safety.

“Essential workers are not disposable workers,” Attorney General Ellison said. “The President must do more to ensure that meat- and poultry-processing plants are safe places to work during the pandemic. No workers in these plants should have to risk their lives to create food for us to eat.”

According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, at least 12,500 COVID-19 cases have been tied to meatpacking plants, and at least 51 workers have died. Data from the State of Minnesota’s COVID-19 dashboard show that Stearns County, which is home to two major poultry-processing plants, has the second-highest number of known COVID-19 cases in Minnesota, and that Nobles County, which is home to the JBF pork-processing plant that has been the site of an important outbreak, has the third-highest number of known COVID-19 cases in Minnesota. Workers in meat- and poultry-processing plants are disproportionately people of color from immigrant and refugee backgrounds.

The incidence of COVID-19 infections among meat and poultry industry workers is so severe that many plants are reporting hundreds of workers testing positive for the novel coronavirus. These clusters of infections are also devastating their surrounding communities. Yet the industry, with workplaces already considered among the most dangerous in the country, has continued to operate the plants without instituting adequate health and safety measures. Despite fast-moving disassembly lines requiring workers to stand shoulder to shoulder for hours, efforts to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and enforce social-distancing measures have been sporadic at best. Some companies also continue to impose punitive measures for employees who fall ill and are unable to work.

Rather than slowing line speeds to enable safer working conditions, plants have sought, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved, new line-speed waivers that force employees to work faster and closer to one another.

Trump’s Executive Order instructs the USDA to ensure processing facilities continue to operate under voluntary guidelines for promoting safe working conditions, but it does not mandate these protective measures or commit to enforcing them.

The Trump Administration must, the attorneys general contend, make these health and safety standards stronger, mandatory, and enforceable. Adequate measures must include:

• Priority testing for workers in the processing plants;

• Immediate access to adequate PPE;

• Suspension of all line speed waivers, and a halt to approval of any additional waivers;

• 6-foot physical and social distancing where possible, and plexiglass barriers where distancing cannot be achieved; and,

• Isolation and quarantine of COVID-19 positive workers, with full pay.

Without additional measures to protect these workers, Trump’s Executive Order will prolong the spread of illness and death and imperil its own goal of keeping the plants open. Additionally, the Order may compound the harm done by the federal government’s failure to provide assistance for COVID-19 testing and PPE by attempting to strip from states their ability to determine when or if these processing plants are safe to continue operating in order to protect the health and safety of their own workers.

Joining Attorney General Ellison in signing today’s letter are Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosch, who led the coalition, and the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. A copy of the letter is available on Maryland Attorney General Frosch’s website.


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