This month, the United States House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis launched an investigation into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on meatpacking workers.
This is a welcome move, but to ensure lasting protections for these workers, Congress should look beyond the past year and address dangerous working conditions that allowed Covid-19 to rapidly spread in meatpacking facilities.
Data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network indicates at least 569 meatpacking plants have had confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 57,536 meatpacking workers testing positive. At least 283 workers have died. The majority of meatpacking workers are Black and Latinx. With Covid-19 mortality disproportionately impacting racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants, immigrant women on the frontlines – many heads of their households and caregivers – have raised their voices about disparate impacts.
Workers kill, cut, and package meat in plants that are refrigerator-cold or excessively hot in cramped quarters at dangerous speeds. Our 2019 report documented how meatpacking workers suffer some of the highest rates of occupational injury and chronic illness. Workers were discouraged from reporting injuries or illnesses and feared retaliation if they left the line to seek medical treatment. One poultry worker we spoke with who raised concerns about exposure to chemicals that made them sick said their company told them, “If you don’t want to stay here, go.”
Although rapid “line” speeds are a major factor in the high rates of injury, the US government has failed to provide appropriate oversight. The administration of former President Donald Trump took aggressive steps toward deregulation, issuing a September 2019 rule revoking maximum line speeds for pork producers and issuing 15 new waivers for line speed restrictions for poultry facilities in April 2020. A Washington Post investigation found that poultry plants with line speed waivers were ten times more likely to have coronavirus cases than plants without.
Congress should safeguard the labor rights of frontline workers in the meatpacking industry, including to health and safety, freedom of association, and collective bargaining. It should suspend the approval of line speed waivers and ensure the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the Department of Labor exercises rigorous, transparent oversight with appropriate resources for years to come.