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Will employees show up after Trump orders meat plants to stay open?

Invoking the Defense Production Act, the president signed an executive order to keep meat processing facilities open during the pandemic.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Meat sales during the pandemic have skyrocketed, and supplies at some retailers continue to be spotty as meat processing companies have had to close some facilities due to worker illness or absenteeism. Meat company executives have indicated that the supply chain is at a breaking point.

To keep the plants operating, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in his latest executive order that states plant closures “threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.” The order goes on to say that the administration will take any appropriate action to keep the plants running in accordance with safety guidelines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently issued additional guidelines for processing facilities during the coronavirus pandemic. A key point in those guidelines specifies that workers exposed to COVID-19 may continue to work as long as they remain asymptomatic. The guidelines also suggest that meat processing companies work with appropriate state and local public health officials, follow relevant aspects of CDC guidance and use guidance from other authoritative sources or regulatory bodies as needed.

“Our nation’s meat and poultry processing facilities play an integral role in the continuity of our food supply chain,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “Maintaining the health and safety of these heroic employees in order to ensure that these critical facilities can continue operating is paramount. I also want to thank the companies who are doing their best to keep their workforce safe as well as keeping our food supply sustained. USDA will continue to work with its partners across the federal government to ensure employee safety to maintain this essential industry.”

National Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts issued support for the president's executive order. “By keeping meat and poultry producers operating, the president’s executive order will help avert hardship for agricultural producers and keep safe, affordable food on the tables of American families. The safety of the heroic men and women working in the meat and poultry industry is the first priority. And as it is assured, facilities should be allowed to reopen. We are grateful to the president for acting to protect our nation’s food supply chain.”

However, finding workers to operate the facilities may not be easy. A flurry of media reports in recent days have described workers' concerns about reporting to work at plants that have remained open during the coronavirus pandemic. On a segment on the Today show, Kerry Sanders interviewed meat processing worker Crystal Rodriguez who says, “$4 extra and a $600 bonus, I’m sorry, but that’s not worth my life,” in reference to some of the measures meat companies have enacted during the pandemic. Rodriquez works in a meat processing plant alongside her father, who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union reports that at least 20 meatpacking/food processing workers have died from COVID-19 and more than 5,000 workers are hospitalized or showing symptoms of the virus.

“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers. We urge the administration to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE (personal protection equipment), ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected.”

Perrone also called for meat plants to be “constantly monitored by federal inspectors, and workers must have access to representation to ensure their rights are not violated” and that worker safety standards are enforced.

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