(Updated April 29, 2020) | Meat processing plant workers are pushing back at President Donald Trump’s executive order to remain open during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“All I know is, this is crazy to me, because I can’t see all these people going back into work,” an employee at major meat producer Tyson Food’s Waterloo, Iowa, told CNN Business. He asked to be referred to as “Donald” out of fear of losing his job. He is currently recovering from coronavirus.
“I don’t think people are going to go back in there,” he added. “I’m still trying to figure out: What is he going to do, force them to stay open? Force people to go to work?”
Several other employees anonymously vocalized concern for their safety. “All in all, it can be a good thing if done right,” said another Waterloo employee. “But my faith in this administration has never been strong and is nonexistent currently. I wanna know what these added ‘liability protections’ are going to be.”
“I just don’t know how they’re going to do it when there are people dying and getting really sick,” said an employee of Tyson’s Independence, Iowa, plant. “Who’s to say people are even gonna show up to work?”
Trump to Meat Processing Plants: Stay Open
On Tuesday, the president signed an executive order invoking the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to force meat-processing plants to remain operational. The order provides various “liability protections” that have not been named.
“The reason for this EO is there were discussions among certain processing companies (Tysons, for example) to keep only 20% of facilities open. The vast majority of processing plans could have shut down, reducing processing capacity in the country by as much as 80%,” an administration official told NBC News.
“Yeah, we’re working with Tyson, we’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe. And, that will solve any liability problems where they had certain liability problems and, uh, we’ll be in very good shape,” the president said during an event at the Oval Office.
He added: “There’s plenty of supply, as you know, there’s plenty of supply. It’s distribution, and we will, uh, probably have that today solved. It was a very unique circumstance because of liability.”
U.S. Meat-Processing Plants Close Amid COVID-19
Over the past month, several plants have shut down across the country as workers have become infected with the virus.
In response to the surge in closures, Tyson Foods’ chairman, John H. Tyson said, “the food supply chain is breaking.”
“In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue,” Tyson added. He continued: “Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals—chickens, pigs, and cattle—will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”
Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill Ltd., Empire Kosher Poultry Inc., National Beef Packing Co., and Smithfield Food Inc. have all reported plant closures due to COVID-19.
Slaughterhouse Workers Face Health Risks On The Job
The coronavirus has already affected thousands of meat industry workers.
In a release, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union revealed 72 workers have died due to COVID-19. The virus has directly impacted 5,322 workers. As a result, the union demanded improved protections for those working in the industry.
“These workers never signed up to be first responders in an emergency, but that is exactly what they are now and they need protections immediately before more lives are needlessly lost,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “The human cost to America’s food, retail, and commercial workers is real and growing.”
U.S. meat inspectors also revealed they don’t feel safe doing their jobs during the pandemic. Inspectors say the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service failed to provide them with adequate safety equipment. These include items like hand sanitizer and face masks.
A U.S. meat inspector told the Philadelphia Inquirer he’s scared to go to work. He said: “Is this the day that I’m possibly given a death sentence for staying on the job?”