(Updates with response from OSHA in last two paragraphs.)
Labor activists urged lawmakers to protect agriculture workers better from coronavirus infections through government action, including vaccine access and federal rules.
“More meatpacking and poultry workers died of Covid-19 in the 12 months of the pandemic than died from all work-related causes in the last 15 years,” Debbie Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project said in her opening testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
Lawmakers at a House Appropriations laborsubcommittee hearing considered activists’ calls for the Agriculture Department to roll back processing line speeds that were increased during the outbreak. Advocates also want the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency standard protecting workers exposed to the virus.
Democrats dug into OSHA’s performance during the pandemic. Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.) cited agency failures to discipline companies properly with adequate fines, and Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.) pointed to low staffing levels.
“OSHA was noticeably absent when workers needed them most,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) said.
Access to Vaccines
Rep. Andy Harris (Md.) and other Republicans joined several Democrats in backing expanded vaccine access for industry workers. GOP members credited corporate efforts to protect their employees.
“Getting as many of the food processing workers vaccinated as possible is really the light at the end of this tunnel—the one that preserves our ability to process all the meats we need to do,” Harris said at the hearing.
President Joe Biden’s administration ordered OSHA in January to determine whether there’s a need for an emergency temporary standard protecting workers, which could be issued by March 15.
“We want to make sure farmworkers have been included in the emergency temporary standard because they’ve been historically left out of other occupational safety protections,” Iris Figueroa, director of economic and environmental justice at Farmworker Justice, said in a Monday telephone interview. Figueroa, who testified on Tuesday, said such an emergency standard should address transportation and housing.
The Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization, estimates at least 87,964 workers in the meatpacking, food processing, and farm industries have tested positive for Covid-19, and 375 have died as of Tuesday.
Push for Vaccine Access
Carmen Rottenberg, managing director of agriculture consulting firm Groundswell Strategy, defended meatpackers’ efforts to ensure worker safety, pointing in her prepared hearing remarks to “an estimated $1.5 billion (and counting) on comprehensive mitigation and control measures” spent by the meat and poultry industry.
Rottenberg’s company represents law firm Holland & Knight LLP, which has acted on behalf of Smithfield Foods Inc. The industry giant, along withTyson Foods Inc. and JBS USA Holdings Inc., has been one of the targets of a Democratic-led investigation into Covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants launched last month.
Covid-19 infection rates among meat and poultry workers are more than five times lower than in the general U.S. population, and 95% below peak case rates from last May, the North American Meat Institute in a Tuesday press release.
Rottenberg pushed for the federal government to ensure immediate vaccinations for front-line food workers—a call echoed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents over 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers. The union’s latest figures indicate that only 12 states have offered access to vaccines for meatpacking workers.
“Listening to the meat industry’s testimony, you would think that they were exemplars for workplace health and safety, but we’ve got some recent OSHA complaints that tell another story,” Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said at the hearing.
She listed several incidents at facilities nationwide, including a Georgia meatpacking plant where last November, sick employees weren’t isolated and exposed workers weren’t checked or quarantined, and a Mississippi poultry plant where infected employees could return to work after two days without negative results.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act excludes farmworkers’ safety, including housing and transportation, which have been sites of Covid outbreaks in several states.
The lack of enforceable rules during the pandemic led to little workplace enforcement, Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project said. On the federal level, OSHA received 13,791 complaints, and state agencies received 47,130 complaints throughout the pandemic, as of Feb. 28. Berkowitz accused federal regulators of conducting few inspections, and said fines issued were “worse than a slap on the wrist.”
OSHA is reviewing its enforcement efforts related to the coronavirus and will identify any changes that could better protect businesses and workers, and ensure equity in enforcement, a Labor Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
The agency is also working on a national emphasis program tied to the virus to focus its efforts on violations that put the largest number of workers at serious risk, or are contrary to anti-retaliation principles, the official added.