|RICHMOND (May 12, 2020) –Attorney General Mark R. Herring today joined a coalition of 20 attorneys general calling for President Trump to take immediate action to ensure the health and safety of meat and poultry processing plant employees, who have been deemed essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 28, Trump signed an Executive Order invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) in an attempt to keep meat and poultry processing plants open despite widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 in these facilities. Over 10,000 cases have been tied to the plants, and 45 workers have died. The Order attempts to force employees to continue working without imposing adequate and enforceable mandates to protect their health and safety. Virginia is home to a number of poultry and meat processing plants, particularly on the Eastern Shore and in the Shenandoah Valley. As of last week in Virginia, there were at least 260 cases of COVID-19 at two poultry packing facilities in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore, making up about 60% of cases in that county.
“If President Trump is going to force poultry and meat processing plant employees to continue working in these dangerous conditions than he must also implement critical safety measures to prevent them from getting sick,” said Attorney General Herring. “Meat and poultry processing plants, including those on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, have become hotbeds for coronavirus and it is just wrong to have anyone working in these conditions without proactively making sure that all necessary safeguards are put in place to keep them protected from infection. These are human beings working in these plants not machines and they must be treated better.”
The incidence of COVID-19 infections among meat and poultry industry workers is so severe that many plants are reporting hundreds of workers testing positive for the novel coronavirus. These clusters of infections are also devastating their surrounding communities. Yet the industry, with workplaces already considered among the most dangerous in the country, has continued to operate the plants without instituting adequate health and safety measures. Despite fast-moving disassembly lines requiring workers to stand shoulder to shoulder for hours, efforts to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and enforce social distancing measures have been sporadic at best. Some companies also continue to impose punitive measures for employees who fall ill and are unable to work. Rather than slowing line speeds to enable safer working conditions, plants have sought, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved, new line speed waivers that force employees to work faster and closer to one another.
Trump’s Executive Order instructs the USDA to ensure processing facilities continue to operate under voluntary guidelines for promoting safe working conditions, but it does not mandate these protective measures or commit to enforcing them. In their letter, the attorneys general contend that the Trump Administration must make these health and safety standards stronger, mandatory, and enforceable. Adequate measures must include:
- Priority testing for workers in the processing plants;
- Immediate access to adequate PPE;
- Suspension of all line speed waivers, and a halt to approval of any additional waivers;
- 6-foot physical and social distancing where possible, and plexiglass barriers where distancing cannot be achieved; and,
- Isolation and quarantine of COVID-19 positive workers, with full pay.
Without additional measures to protect these workers, Trump’s Executive Order will prolong the spread of illness and death and imperil its own goal of keeping the plants open. Additionally, the Order may compound the harm done by the federal government’s failure to provide assistance for COVID-19 testing and PPE by attempting to strip from states their ability to determine when or if these processing plants are safe to continue operating in order to protect the health and safety of their own workers.
Joining Attorney General Herring in sending today’s letter are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin.