Meatpacking plant workers take new approach in COVID-19 safety push

Meatpacking plant workers take new approach in COVID-19 safety push
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Meatpacking plant workers, many of whom are Black or Latino, are taking a new approach to fighting for workplace protections by accusing their employers of civil rights violations.

Workers groups have filed a complaint to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) saying companies like Tyson Foods and JBS have engaged in racial discrimination against employees. In addition to months of stories from workers, advocates are also citing new figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that show minorities make up almost 90 percent of COVID-19 cases at food processing plants.  

But the novel approach — filing a complaint with the USDA — faces an uphill legal battle, and it follows unsuccessful lawsuits against meat and poultry companies during the pandemic. 

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“Over the last four months, Black and Brown workers have literally had to choose between their lives and their livelihood. We’ve been organizing that whole time and we’re seeing zero accountability from the federal government,” Navina Khanna, director of the HEAL Food Alliance, one of the groups that filed the complaint, said in an email. 

The legal effort comes amid nationwide protests over racial injustice following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. It also comes as several studies show minorities are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. 

“The institutional and systemic racism that is present, and police brutality and other aspects of our society, is coming to the forefront now in a national reckoning. Those same systems of oppression are present in ... the meat processing corporations. People of color have been oppressed by these corporations for years before George Floyd died,” said Public Justice’s Brent Newell, the lead attorney representing complainants.

“The USDA has been tolerating racism and it’s been right out in the open. That’s why we filed it,” he added. 

Newell said they have not heard back from USDA, Tyson Foods or JBS. 

A USDA spokesperson told The Hill that it can’t comment on complaints filed with the agency. 

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Meat processing plants quickly became hot spots for the coronavirus, prompting several to temporarily close during the pandemic. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE signed an executive order in April to compel meat processing plants to stay open during the crisis. 

As of Tuesday, more than 35,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with more than 4,000 food processing workers and 4,200 farmworkers, according to data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

Experts say the workers groups are taking an unusual approach in seeking justice for Black and Latino employees. 

“This is novel just like the virus is novel. This is a really novel concept and it’s actually very creative,” said Sam Pond, managing partner at Pond Lehocky Giordano LLP and an expert on workplace violations and worker safety. “I think that it’s going to be challenging because you’re going to have to show some sort of real intent here.” 

In response to a request for comment, a JBS spokesperson stressed the importance of diversity at the company. 

“We are a culture of many, including refugee, immigrant, native-born and asylee. We are humbled to provide well-paying jobs to many first-generation Americans seeking to build a better future for themselves and their families,” the spokesperson said. 

The spokesperson added that the company has followed and “often exceeded” CDC guidelines for safe working conditions. 

Tyson Foods said it is still reviewing the filing. 

“Our top priority is the health and safety of all our team members, their families and the communities where our plants are located. We’ve transformed the way our plants operate to protect our team members, implementing measures such as symptom screening before every shift,” the spokesperson said.  

Worker safety advocates and Democrats have called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the Labor Department, to impose a nationwide COVID-19 standard to address issues like the ones at food processing plants. 

“The administration has abandoned its obligations to people. These are the forgotten Americans: the migrant workers on farms, the workers at meat processing plants, the men and women of this country at factories, in retail, at restaurants, clocking in and clocking out to feed their family and support this nation,” Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroCoronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Lobbyists see wins, losses in GOP coronavirus bill Public health groups denounce new Trump move sidelining CDC MORE (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Labor Department, told The Hill. 

Khanna said that, while it is important that the CDC document that minorities make up the vast majority of COVID-19 cases at food processing plants, the federal government needs to take action by setting an OSHA standard.

OSHA argues it’s been protecting workers by providing guidance to employers, though the guidelines are not requirements.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights group, visited food processing plants to see what protective measures companies have implemented. The organization said in June it has seen progress in working environments. 

“So far, LULAC has met with JBS in Greeley, Colorado and Tyson Foods in Springdale, Arkansas. Both have made significant strides,” the organization said in a statement. 

Still, the coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on the lack of worker protections and the cozy relationship between USDA and the companies it regulates, DeLauro said.

“For years the USDA has been complicit with industry giants, like JBS, in denying basic safety protections for meat and poultry plant workers, who are predominantly black and Latino people of color,” the congresswoman said. “Now, the current pandemic has publicly exposed these injustices and compounded the problem. The utter failure by USDA and industry to protect these essential workers gave rise to high-profile outbreaks across the country.”