Keeping America's food supply strong starts with worker safety
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Our country’s food supply is facing an unprecedented threat from the coronavirus outbreak and hundreds of thousands of American workers in meatpacking and food processing plants are seeing new cases each week. As America’s largest food and retail union, we are hearing from our 250,000 workers in meatpacking plants every day about how concerned they are for their safety and the danger facing our food supply chain.

Make no mistake, the threat to these workers and our food supply is real, and without prioritizing worker safety, this collective threat will only worsen.

To date, we have already documented the tragic deaths of 21 of our meatpacking members and seen 5,000 workers infected or exposed. As we have all seen, more than 20 plants have shut down to slow the spread of the virus in South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Indiana and Minnesota.

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Elected leaders in states across the country — both Republicans and Democrats — have failed to act quickly enough to address the urgent safety issues plaguing these plants and putting these workers and our food supply at risk.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection MORE’s new executive order invokes the Defense Production Act to keep all meatpacking plants open and prevent any further food supply shortages. But the new White House policy does not mandate any of the strong worker safety standards needed to protect these plants and employees from additional outbreaks of the virus.

What the president and far too many of our elected leaders fail to recognize is that the way these meatpacking plants are set up requires hundreds of workers to stand in close proximity to one another for hours on end — making physical distancing nearly impossible. Without strong and enforceable safety measures and protections, these plants are essentially stationary cruise ships, facing the exact same safety issues and just as likely to become coronavirus hot spots.

To be clear, shutting plants down is not something anyone wants. U.S. meatpacking plant closures have already led to a 25 percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity and a 10 percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity. Our meatpacking workers want to work, but we cannot ignore the dangerous safety issues that exist.

The most critical step to protecting America’s food supply is to put safety first for these workers and plants.

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State governors claim to share our concern for our country’s food supply and worker safety. Every state must put their commitment to safety into action by passing executive orders that define clear and enforceable worker safety standards in every meatpacking plant in the nation.

Strong state action to increase safety at meatpacking plants must include the enforcement of six-foot social and physical distancing to the greatest extent possible and worker access to the highest level of personal protective equipment (PPE) for when physical distancing is not possible.

States must also ensure that daily testing is available for workers and their families, and employers must provide full paid sick leave so that sick workers are able to stay home and never have to choose between their health and a paycheck. States must fully enforce recent CDC guidelines on meatpacking and work with federal inspectors to provide constant monitoring of these plants to ensure safety measures are put into place immediately.

In the face of this unprecedented public health crisis, business and elected leaders must step up and work together with United Food and Commercial Workers and our local unions across the country to ensure that these essential workers have the essential protections they need. Presidential executive orders that fail to prioritize worker safety will do nothing to protect our nation’s food supply at a time when we need it most.

We are already seeing beef shortages in fast food restaurants and limits on meat purchases at grocery stores. Forcing meatpacking plants to reopen without strong safeguards in place will backfire and only further worsen the crisis our country is facing.

Americans need strong and swift action from our country’s leaders to put safety first at these meatpacking plants. Truly protecting our food supply begins and ends with protecting our nation’s workers. This is the only way we can weather this storm and ensure all Americans have the food they need during this deadly crisis.

Marc Perrone is the President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in meatpacking plants, grocery stores, health care, and many other essential industries.