Northam urges ‘larger role’ for feds on poultry worker safety but advocates press state to step up

By: - April 30, 2020 12:01 am

A car at an April 27 rally on the Eastern Shore in support of protecting poultry processing plant workers from COVID-19. (Legal Aid Justice Center)

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order Tuesday invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure meat processing facilities remain open during the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam is calling on the administration to provide additional assistance to protect plant workers.

“If we declare that workers at meat processing plants are essential, then it is imperative that we continue to support their health and well-being,” said Northam at his regular Wednesday press conference.

“I sincerely hope that with this executive order, the president is signaling that the federal government will play a much larger role in keeping the employees of these meat processing plants safe and provide federal support to ensure every worker has protection, including adequate (personal protective equipment),” he continued.

Northam’s remarks followed the deployment this week of a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, which has seen emerging outbreaks of COVID-19 at the Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms processing plants in Temperanceville and Accomac, respectively. 

On Wednesday morning, Virginia Department of Health Eastern Region Public Information Officer Larry Hill said that four CDC representatives had already arrived on the Eastern Shore, with others expected later in the day.

“There’s more coming, we’re just not sure what kind of representation they’re sending to us yet,” said Hill.

The Department of Health has refused to confirm numbers of COVID-19 cases at individual poultry processing facilities, but officials at the Eastern Shore’s sole hospital, Riverside Shore Memorial, told The Washington Post this week that there have been nearly 100 cases linked to the Tyson plant and about 80 linked to the Perdue plant.

VDH numbers updated Wednesday morning counted 265 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Eastern Shore Health District, which encompasses Accomack and Northampton counties. With 679 total tests recorded in the district, that equates to a nearly 40 percent diagnosis rate. 

But while the Northam administration’s move to bring in federal assistance to deal with the poultry processing problem drew regional praise, some worker advocates cautioned that little progress can be made unless enforceable health and safety standards are put in place to protect workers. 

“We’re asking more of” these workers, said Jason Yarashes, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center who has been closely involved with efforts to seek more robust protections for Virginia’s poultry plant employees. “What are we going to do for them?”

The CDC this weekend issued new federal guidelines for meat processing workers, including recommendations that facilities modify their labor lines to ensure six feet of distance between employees and stagger arrival and departure times.

But those recommendations don’t have much teeth, cautioned Yarashes.

“This is a problem across the country. (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has a lot of recommendations. CDC has a lot of recommendations. But there’s no enforceable regulations,” he said.

The Legal Aid Justice Center is one of several groups that have urged the Northam administration to use its emergency powers to institute more robust regulations that would give enforcement power to the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Program under the Department of Labor and Industry.

A DOLI official did not respond to a request for information about complaints and inspections related to Virginia meat processing facilities.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.