Hispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) asked Thursday for a meeting with Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) head Loren Sweatt to clarify the agency's oversight of working conditions at meatpacking plants amid coronavirus.

"Even with alarming irregularities in reported data, trends across the board show that there has not been a flattening in the number of new COVID-19 cases in this sector since the pandemic began," wrote CHC Chairman Joaquín Castro (D-Texas).

Castro added that 33,000 cases of coronavirus have been tied to meatpacking plants, and "at least 132 meatpacking workers have died."

"Yet, in light of these numbers, OSHA only issued its first coronavirus workplace citation to a nursing home in Ohio in late July and has not yet issued any citations to meat or poultry processing facilities," wrote Castro.

Meatpacking as an industry disproportionately employs people of color, particularly Latinos, who often have to work in close proximity to each other.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought light to the issue of worker safety in meat and poultry processing centers, a longstanding topic among Hispanic labor activists.

But questions have been raised about whether reducing crowding or line speeds in those plants could risk the overall food supply.

And some officials, like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, have privately blamed the lifestyle of meatpacking workers on the high rates of coronavirus transmission. 

Castro wrote that the CHC does not feel companies and federal regulators are doing enough to protect workers at meat and poultry packing centers.

In his letter, Castro asked Scalia and Sweatt for the meeting to respond to a series of questions on Labor and OSHA's roles in supervising proper workplace conditions amid the pandemic.

A representative for the Department of Labor did not immediately return a request for comment.

In June, CHC members met with meatpacking labor representatives and the heads of the largest meat and poultry processing companies. 

The CHC is seeking to strengthen federal oversight of the industry, and to pass measures such as hazard pay for essential workers.

"We cannot sit back and watch as the vulnerable communities that make up a majority of this industry's essential workforce face dangerous working conditions. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, almost one-half, 44 percent, of meatpacking workers are Hispanic, and according to CDC data last accessed in early July, 87% of workers in the meat and poultry industry who tested positive belonged to racial or ethnic minorities," wrote Castro.

Castro was joined by fellow CHC members Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.), Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Filemon Vela (D-Texas), José Serrano (D-N.Y.), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Luis Correa (D-Calif.), Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Norma Torres (D-Calif.), Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), Jesús García (D-Ill.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Northern Mariana Islands Del. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D).