May 15, 2020

Wyden, Merkley Urge Action to Ensure Worker Safety as Trump Administration Pressures Meat Processing Plants to Open

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today raised new concerns about the Trump administration’s Executive Order pressuring meat processing plants to open without verifying the necessary safety measures to protect workers and the food supply. 

The senators, along with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and 26 of their colleagues, outlined recommendations for ways the administration should improve worker safety in a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue.

“While we recognize the importance of keeping these plants running, it is wrong and shortsighted to use the Defense Production Act to mandate plants to stay open without effectively addressing worker safety issues,” wrote the senators. “Prematurely reopening or pressuring unsafe plants to stay open could expose employees to COVID-19. This could then sicken more workers and their families, spread the virus in their communities, and cause further damage to our food supply chain, farmers and ranchers, and rural economies.”

While the administration has applauded the reopening of several plants after the Executive Order, USDA officials in congressional briefings could not confirm that the plants were operating in accordance with CDC and OSHA guidance. USDA officials in the briefing said the Department had not consulted with plant workers or relevant unions on safety issues.

The senators urged USDA to ensure that meatpacking plants take sufficient actions to protect worker safety before opening, including reconfiguring the plants to allow for social distancing, providing appropriate personal protective equipment, instituting ongoing testing, ensuring that infected employees are not coming to work, and making other necessary changes to keep workers safe. The senators also urged USDA to:

  • Advocate for the creation of a White House-led office of supply chain coordination as recommended by 20 key organizations.
  • Create localized working groups for individual plants that include USDA, CDC, OSHA, companies, union representatives, workers, and appropriate state and local authorities to implement plans to safely reopen and ensure all issues are addressed. 
  • Ensure that all meat processing facilities operate in accordance with the OSHA and CDC guidance for meat and poultry processing employees.
  • Clarify that that the Executive Order does not require meat processing plants to stay open, and the plants should only operate in accordance with the OSHA and CDC guidelines and any other requirements from state or local authorities.
  • Use the Defense Production Act and other contracting authorities to access and produce personal protective equipment and testing.
  • Urge OSHA to vigorously enforce the OSHA and CDC guidance under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act at meat and poultry processing plants.
  • Urge U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to immediately issue and enforce an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard that requires employers to protect their workers from the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.

In addition to Wyden, Merkley and Stabenow, the letter was signed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand,D-N.Y., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Tom Carper, D-Del., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Tina Smith, D-Minn., Robert Casey, D-Penn., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Doug Jones, D-Ala., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Jack Reed, D-R.I., Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Gary C. Peters, D-Mich.

A copy of the letter can be found here.