President Donald Trump was expected to sign an executive order on Tuesday afternoon invoking the Defense Production Act to mandate that packing plants continue to function. Major U.S. packing companies have closed some facilities temporarily and slowed line speeds at others in attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 among employees.
The result has been a growing shortage of protein products available to consumers, while creating a bottleneck at plants producers need to market their hogs and cattle. Sources inside the White House told Reuters and other news outlets Trump will declare the packing facilities “critical infrastructure.”
Trump said earlier that his administration was working with Tyson, indicating that the executive order would alleviate some of the liability concerns which had become a “road block” for the company. Officials said the executive order would affect all protein processing facilities, including eggs.
Trump’s order brought responses from two unions that represent packing plant workers. Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s Union, called on Trump to take immediate action to support his new order for meatpacking plants to remain open.
“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected,” Perrone said in a statement. “The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak, and at least 20 meatpacking workers have tragically died from coronavirus while more than 5,000 workers have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms. For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers.”
UFCW, America's largest meatpacking union with 250,000 members, shares concern over the food supply, but Perrone said today’s executive order must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first.
“We urge the Administration to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected,” Perrone said. “Additionally, to protect the food supply and ensure these safety standards for workers are enforced, these plants must be constantly monitored by federal inspectors and workers must have access to representation to ensure their rights are not violated.
“All of our country’s elected leaders - federal and state - must work together to ensure that we keep these essential workers safe and our country’s food supply secure,” he said.
Also responding to Trump’s executive order was Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” Applebaum said in a statement. “When poultry plants shut down, it's for deep cleaning and to save workers' lives. If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on as they should have and still must do, this would not even have become an issue. Employers and government must do better. If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy.”
Drovers and Farm Journal have reached out to Tyson for a comment, and this story will be updated with further developments.
Already, worker’s rights groups have filed suit against Smithfield Foods over that company’s policies implemented at its Milan, Mo. Plant. Tuesday a federal judge ordered Smithfield to comply with public health guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect the Milan workers from the coronavirus.
The workers at the Milan plant are asking the court to declare that Smithfield’s alleged failure to implement appropriate worker protections during the pandemic constitutes a public nuisance and is a violation of the right to a safe workplace under Missouri law.