AG Josh Kaul, unions seek stronger meatpacking safety rules

By: - May 12, 2020 5:29 pm
Meat at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Meat at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Attorney General Josh Kaul and union leaders are calling for tougher regulation of the meatpacking industry after President Donald Trump issued an executive order  to keep packing companies operating despite  the fact that thousands of workers have been infected by COVID-19.

Kaul is one of 20 state attorneys general who signed a letter from the office of Maryland AG Brian Frosh sent to the White House on Tuesday, criticizing Trump for ordering  plants to reopen and stay open under the Defense Production Act (DPA).

Attorney General Josh Kaul
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul

“The industry’s workers are risking their lives to maintain production in these facilities under extremely unsafe working conditions,” the letter states. “Your action purporting to force plants to stay open and employees to continue working must be accompanied by the enforcement of standards to ensure the safety of these essential workers.”

The letter urges the Trump administration to strengthen worker safety guidelines for meat and poultry processing plants issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and to make them mandatory.

The call echoes that of meatpacking workers and unions. “We want OSHA and the CDC to have strict guidelines and make them enforceable,” says Jake Bailey, food processing director for the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1473, which represents about 5,000 meatpacking employees in Wisconsin, including at JBS Foods in Green Bay and the Smithfield Foods Patrick Cudahy plant in the Milwaukee suburb of Cudahy.

The meatpacking industry has been a hotspot nationally for COVID-19 infections, with a reported 10,000 workers diagnosed with the illness nationwide and at least 45 people who have died. The industry workforce includes large numbers of immigrants and people of color, and work practices under normal circumstances tend to put workers in close proximity to each other,working at high speed as they cut up animal carcasses.

In Wisconsin, according to a database kept by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, infections have been found in employees of at least six meatpacking plants. They include two in Green Bay plants — one owned by JBS USA, where at least 262 employees and 86 other people connected to employees have been infected, and the other by American Foods Group, with 170 or more employees and 27 other people who have been infected. Others include the Cudahy plant, where at least 89 people have been infected; Salm Partners in Denmark, Wis., with at least 35 people infected; Kenosha Beef, in Kenosha, with 15 people infected; and Calumet Diversified Meats in Pleasant Prairie, with 22 people infected — including two deaths.

The JBS plant and the Cudahy plant have been among those in the state that have closed temporarily. The shutdowns affected a total of nearly 2,500 workers, Bailey says.

Industry insiders have told the Wisconsin Examiner that the number of meatpacking workers sickened with the illness may be much higher than has so far been publicly disclosed.

Bailey says employers whose workers are represented by the UFCW have been instituting safety measures, slowing down plant lines, keeping  workers at least 6 feet apart where possible and placing clear plastic protective shields between workers when they can’t be separated more.

“In a lot of these rooms, there just isn’t enough real estate to get 6 additional feet in some areas,” Bailey says. Workers have also been given face coverings, but “not all of the equipment we’re asking for is readily available.”

The union has sought more personal protective equipment (PPE), including cloth masks for workers and face shields to block transmission of the virus from other people nearby, he said.

Employers have relaxed rules about absenteeism and sick time somewhat, says Bailey, but some of those allowances are likely to end soon. Higher premium pay that has been put in place during the pandemic is likely to be discontinued through the summer, he adds.

The union and the attorneys general alike are seeking OSHA and CDC rules that make testing packing workers a top priority; ensure access to PPE for all workers; 6-foot distancing and barriers where that is not possible; and isolation and quarantine, with full pay, for all workers who test positive for COVID-19.

Last week Sen. Tammy Baldwin sent a letter to three meatpacking companies, JBS, Smithfield and Tyson Foods, taking them to task for health and safety hazards in the industry exacerbated by COVID-19.

Baldwin has introduced legislation to require a temporary OSHA standard obligating workplaces to institute infectious disease exposure control plans during the pandemic

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.