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Advocates for American meatpacking workers, sacrificed during the pandemic by an industry that has President Donald Trump’s ear, offered tentative hope for a heavier hand under Joe Biden.
Biden, who takes office Jan. 20, won the U.S. presidential election on a campaign promise to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The spread took hold in meatpacking plants this spring and since has infected more than 42,000 workers and killed at least 221 people. The Trump administration, meanwhile, weakened safety guidelines and signed an executive order to keep plants open at the request of industry officials, even as outbreaks ravaged the plants.
Worker advocates, experts and former government officials said Biden could – and should – direct his agencies to implement and enforce strict safety measures to protect worker health.
“As a candidate, Joe Biden was fairly critical and spoke of the need for greater protections for workers,” said Jill Krueger, Northern Region director for The Network for Public Health Law. “I think we can anticipate some potentially fairly significant changes from a new administration.”
Those changes must start, those sources said, with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, which sits under the Department of Labor.
OSHA, which is tasked with protecting workers, has not enforced its own recommendations, allowing companies to continue crowding workers. While nearly 500 plants have had outbreaks, OSHA has only fined six of them.
“Thousands of meatpacking workers contracted COVID-19 because giant meatpackers refused to lose a single dollar slowing down line speeds to keep workers safe, and the Trump administration’s (Department of Labor) accommodated them at every turn,” said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a frequent critic of the agency’s response to the coronavirus outbreaks inside meatpacking plants.
“A Biden administration can immediately restore OSHA to serve workers, not big corporations – starting by issuing enforceable health and safety standards for COVID-19, conducting on-site inspections, and ramping up enforcement activity so that giant companies don’t escape accountability for workplace conditions that expose workers to serious harm and death,” Warren said.
Biden has provided no specifics about how he will direct his agencies – including OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – to oversee the industry’s handling of the coronavirus. His transition team did not respond to interview requests.
But Biden has left some hints. He previously urged Trump to adopt a permanent infectious disease standard to protect frontline workers. He also said Trump should double the number of OSHA inspectors to provide more oversight.
And, in May, after meatpacking plants became COVID-19 hotspots, Biden said workers should be spaced 6 feet apart in plants – which is still not happening industry-wide – and should receive proper protective equipment.
“No worker’s life is worth my getting a cheaper hamburger,” he told Yahoo News. “We don’t treat the workers well at all across the board. We have obligations to workers, we have obligations to the community.”
Advocates also pointed to the people Biden named to his agency review teams as an indication of his priorities.
Review teams study and evaluate the operations of each agency to prepare for a transition of power. While the Trump administration has largely ignored the concerns of meatpacking employees, Biden put worker advocates on two teams reviewing agencies that oversee meatpacking plants.
A representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers International union, which many meatpacking employees belong to, sits on the USDA review team. And two members of the National Employment Law Project, which has harshly criticized the Trump administration’s hands-off approach to meatpacking plants, sit on the Labor Department team.
“Certainly, I think, industry will continue to have a voice at the table and will lobby and pressure various constituents in different ways,” said Adam Pulver, an attorney at Public Citizen who used to work in the Department of Labor, “but the two biggest changes will be receptiveness to workers’ interests, both at USDA and DOL, and a receptiveness to science and public health.”
However, a potentially large obstacle stands in the way of making significant changes, experts said — the hollowing out of the civil service.
OSHA entered the pandemic with 40 percent of its leadership roles unfilled and with its fewest number of investigators ever, according to the National Employment Law Project.
“There has been a decimation of the career civil service,” Pulver said. “A lot of these agencies just have a lot less staff than they did four years ago. To conduct investigations that are solid you have to have people.”
Experts said Biden would need to work with Congress to increase funding for OSHA.
Joshua Specht, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame who studies the meat industry, said that problem won’t be solved with the flip of a switch, or an executive order.
“Without major legislation,” he said, “the capacity in terms of inspectors is so severely eroded over the past 20 years that I think enormous challenges remain.”
Biden has options
Once in office, Biden will have the opportunity to make immediate changes on his own and use the same authority that Trump has used to help the meatpacking industry.
After Smithfield Foods saw CDC recommendations on how to protect workers at its South Dakota plant, the White House directed the CDC to water them down. The North American Meat Institute, the industry’s lobbying arm, wrote a draft version of the executive order that Trump would sign a week later.
Asked what a Biden administration meant for its members, the meat institute, whose political action committee has historically favored Republicans, said it “will interact with the Biden administration on behalf of the industry as we did with the Trump administration.”
Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International union, said he thinks Biden could sign an executive order, using the Defense Production Act, to increase the supply of masks and other PPE. Mandating masks was not consistent across the meatpacking industry, and some companies have said they struggled to acquire them.
Biden also could address line speeds, an area of concern for worker safety in ordinary times but one also with coronavirus implications.
The Trump administration has allowed specific plants to increase their production speeds during the pandemic, including some that have had COVID-19 outbreaks.
The Obama administration also considered increasing line speeds but ultimately scrapped it over concerns for worker safety. Increasing the number of birds processed in a minute generally means that workers are pushed closer together, according to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report. Despite CDC and OSHA guidelines to space out workers, meatpacking companies have resisted spacing out workers during the pandemic, saying it would be too costly.
Pulver said he thinks a Biden administration would be receptive to keeping the maximum speeds as they are.
“I think workers have a good reason to believe that their concerns and voices will be heard more than in the current administration on this issue,” he said.
More standards, more teeth
Biden’s campaign plan called for an emergency temporary standard so OSHA would have to enforce violations related to the coronavirus. OSHA currently has no standards related to infectious diseases.
Experts agreed that a Biden administration could issue such a standard swiftly.
An emergency temporary standard would be in effect for six months, and the administration could use that time to work on a permanent standard.
Celeste Monforton, a lecturer in public health at Texas State University who worked at the Department of Labor for more than a decade, said issuing an emergency standard would be “very aggressive, robust action.”
“That shows the recognition by the administration of what a critical piece of the pandemic is related to what’s happening in workplaces,” she said, “and that the consequence is not just for the workers but for the people who live in those surrounding communities.”
OSHA’s own guidance for meatpacking plants, issued with the CDC, could serve as the foundation. Those guidelines were issued in April, but worker advocates have criticized them as being riddled with loopholes that don’t set requirements for the plants.
The guidance on distancing, for instance, tells meatpackers to place workers 6 feet apart, “if possible.”
Uniformly, the industry has not done that and workers face crowded conditions on the lines, where they work within feet of each other. In a letter responding to U.S. Sens. Warren and Cory Booker, D-N.J., Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan argued his plants had tried to distance in accordance with those guidelines.
“Please understand, processing plants were no more designed to operate in a pandemic than hospitals were designed to produce pork,” he wrote. “In other words, for better or worse, our plants are what they are. Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? Okay. Where?”
OSHA could look to states, some of which have their own agencies governing worker safety, for examples of emergency temporary standards. Virginia became the first to do so in July. Michigan and Oregon followed, and California is in the process of drafting one.
“It could be a blueprint for a kind of standard that the federal government could get out quite quickly,” said Gregory Wagner, a former senior advisor at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and adjunct professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“There are challenges with having the availability of enforcement personnel inspectors,” he said, “but with the presence of a clear standard, employers will know what to do.”
The meatpacking industry would likely challenge any such requirements, experts agreed. And an emergency temporary standard is only as good as enforcement.
Worker advocates expressed hope that would increase under a Biden administration.
Through Thursday, OSHA has opened 367 inspections into meatpacking plants this year, according to federal enforcement data. In a year that’s seen meatpacking plants emerge as hot spots for the spread of the coronavirus, OSHA’s inspections total is on par with the number of inspections in meatpacking plants in recent years.
“With a regulation that says you have to have social distancing, that is going to impact production but we have to think about how many lives do you want to sacrifice?” Monforton said. “How much disease transmission do you want to allow?”
Biden has also called on Trump to implement a permanent infectious disease standard.
In 2009 following the H1N1 pandemic, OSHA began drafting one that would have required hospitals and other healthcare facilities to implement infection control programs. The Trump administration shelved it in 2017.
“Those rules are sitting on the shelf while workers are dying, which is unacceptable and an avoidable tragedy,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
Biden’s campaign plan called for expanding the standard for “all relevant workplaces.” While it’s not clear whether that would include meatpacking plants, Perrone hopes that it would.
“We’re hopeful" he said, "this administration will take this much more serious.”
This story is a collaboration between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The center is an independent, nonprofit newsroom based in Illinois offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues. Gannett funds a fellowship at the center for expanded coverage of agribusiness and its impact on communities.