Trump, Northam pay lip service to safety for workers at meat processing plants

May 1, 2020 12:02 am

The Tyson processing plant in Glen Allen is one of 122 meat processing facilities in Virginia. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

You can tell a lot about a person by assessing his priorities.

So it’s clear President Donald Trump places a greater value on beef, pork and chicken than he does on human life. It could be due to his love for Quarter Pounders and other fast food. 

Think that’s hyperbole? Consider this: 

Trump hesitated to invoke the Defense Production Act to fight the novel coronavirus. Bipartisan members of Congress, governors and others repeatedly called on the president in March to use the 70-year-old law to force private companies to boost production of ventilators for patients and personal protection equipment for health care workers. (He did issue a memo in early April to get specific companies to produce ventilators.)

There was no arm-twisting needed this week, however. That’s when Trump used the very same act to order meatpacking and production plants to stay open. I understand he’s trying to boost the food supply and the economy, but those areas pale in comparison to the medical needs of this pandemic.

In his executive order, the president said: “It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry … in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.” 

What, tofu won’t suffice? I love bacon as much as the next guy, but Americans could use more fruits and vegetables in our diet, anyway. 

Trump acknowledged the outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers at some facilities. A White House fact sheet also noted the plants should follow federal guidelines to ensure worker safety. 

But the president’s executive order focused more on the need to keep the slaughterhouses grinding than in safeguarding employees from the virus. The plants, you see, are “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act, Trump contends. 

Did the administration’s conversations with executives of major meat-processing companies play a role? I’d bet a burger on it.

I don’t trust the feds to supply workers the clothing, masks and other gear they need to help halt the spread of the virus. The government has been slow in making sure enough COVID-19 tests are available, for example, during the outbreak. Its pledges have little credibility.  

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing employees in the United States, says the speed of the production lines often forces workers to stand closer  than the recommended six feet in social distancing. Members fear the companies will fight any push to slow production.  

UFCW estimates 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have died from COVID-19. Thousands more have either tested positive for the virus, self-quarantined, are awaiting test results or are in stages of recovery. Nearly two dozen plants, the union says, have closed at least temporarily in the past two months. 

And since Big Business has a chum in the White House, union members are right to think they’ll be considered nothing more than table scraps. 

Meanwhile, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has been less-than-proactive, too. 

Activists for workers in the commonwealth have pleaded with Northam, a Democrat, and the feds to issue “enforceable standards” – rather than simply make recommendations on plant safety. The activists say much is being asked of workers, but they’re not getting robust protections in return. Less timidity from the guv would help.

 Such meat and poultry plants are a big part of Virginia’s economy. State and federal officials inspect 122 meat processing plants in Virginia. Federal data from 2019 show chickens raised for meat – rather than eggs – and cattle and calves are responsible for more than $1.3 billion in cash receipts. 

Nor have the plants in Virginia been immune from COVID-19. For example, chicken plants on the Eastern Shore operated by Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods have continued to operate despite rising numbers of infections, according to The Washington Post. 

“Hospital officials said Tuesday that there are nearly 100 cases of Tyson employees or people who came in contact with them contracting COVID-19,” The Post said, “while the Perdue plant has about 80 such cases.”

So far, comments by Trump and Northam on protecting plant workers have amounted to lip service. Those workers, toiling under tough, dangerous conditions, are right to fear the worst. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]