Senate Democrat presses meat processors on worker protections

Senate Democrat presses meat processors on worker protections
© Stefani Reynolds

Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinBiden campaign adds staff in three battleground states Clinton, Buttigieg among Democrats set to hold virtual events for Biden Warren top choice for VP for some Black progressives MORE (D-Wis.) is demanding answers from JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods about working conditions and safety following coronavirus outbreaks in processing plants.

Thousands of processing plant workers have tested positive for coronavirus and several have died, causing closures of plants and a food supply disruption. Baldwin pressed JBS CEO Andre Nogueira, Tyson CEO Noel White and Smithfield CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan on Wednesday about reports of unsafe working conditions.

“Workers at meat processing plants are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and they deserve to be protected as they take on great personal risk to continue to go to work to ensure Americans’ food supply chain is not disrupted," Baldwin wrote to the CEOs. "Your actions directly impact not only these workers’ health and safety, but also that of their family members and surrounding communities."

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She asked for documentation of adherence to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) guidance for meat and poultry plant workers, and that the companies refrain from reopening facilities until workers are trained on safety procedures.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE issued an executive order last week that compels facilities to remain open during the pandemic, and the administration has been hopeful that closed plants will reopen quickly.

Additionally, Baldwin asked for information on how plants are implementing social distancing, what personal protective equipment (PPE) workers have, and compensation for workers, among other issues. 

She noted the effect that closures have had on Wisconsin alone — more than half of the over 900 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Brown County are linked to food processing plants, and 334 of those cases are linked to the JBS plant in Green Bay.

"[N]ews reports indicate that contrary to all CDC guidance that workers stay home if they are sick with or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, companies have implemented policies that encouraged sick workers to come to work,” she wrote.

Smithfield Foods is already being sued over allegations that it failed to protect workers in a Missouri plant by forcing them to work “shoulder to shoulder” and providing inadequate protective gear. The company said the claims were unfounded.