The meatpacking industry represents the largest section of the U.S. agricultural economy, employing hundreds of thousands of workers and producing a staple food source for the U.S. population. As the spread of COVID-19 has heavily impacted the meatpacking industry, government officials are lifting restrictions on production to help keep the U.S. economy afloat. Unfortunately, due to major meatpacking companies neglecting control measures and unclear safety guidelines set by the government, the virus is spreading among workers. How are meatpackers’ rights being compromised, and what steps need to be taken to ensure their safety?
Meatpacking Workers’ Current Conditions
Employee conditions at meatpacking plants are challenging at best; cramped work and break spaces, lack of sufficient ventilation to prevent exposure to harmful chemicals, and injury-causing repetitive movements are common in assembly-line production. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19 include 6-foot distancing between workers, wearing protective masks on the job, and frequent disinfecting of workspaces. However, meatpacking plants are not always taking these measures, resulting in an estimated 3% infection rate among workers. Furthermore, the physical and mental stress of the job can compromise the immune system and make workers more at risk for infection. These workplace conditions post a huge health and safety risk that may be in direct violation of federal law.
Meatpacking Workers’ Federal Rights
The Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) outlines federal health and safety laws pertinent to meatpacking workers which have been in effect long before the COVID-19 pandemic. They include the right to:
- Safe machinery
- Safety gear that protects from harmful chemicals or injuries
- Report injuries
- Access documents related to workplace injury and illness
- Copies of tests done to find hazards in the workplace
- Speak up without fear of retaliation
Recently, employees seeking safe work conditions at a Smithfield Foods plant filed a lawsuit against their employer, but it was dismissed by a federal judge. If this dismissal sets a precedent for future lawsuits, meatpacking employees may have to increase their efforts in the fight for a safer workplace.
The Union vs. the Government
There is a strong disconnect between current government guidelines and the meatpackers union demands. Although some states have initiated the closing of meatpacking plants, the U.S. government is aiming to open more and more plants so as not to disrupt the supply chain. Meanwhile, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), representing meatpacking workers, is focusing on fixing current problems rather than re-opening plants as quickly as possible. Their priorities include adequate testing for workers, decreasing production line speed, providing sufficient protective gear, and social distancing guidelines. The UFCW is putting the safety of workers first and imploring government leaders to follow suit.
If you feel your workplace rights are being compromised, please contact Gokal Law at 949-753-9100.