“Mr. President, on the food supply chain is there anything your administration is doing or might be doing in the future to make sure that there is enough meat supplies?” asked a reporter yesterday at Trump’s mask-free, Oval Office grip-n-grin with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
With thousands of workers infected with coronavirus at meatpacking plants, twenty workers dead from the disease, and the Chairman of Tyson Foods blasting out a warning of impending meat shortages, Trump announced that he would be taking swift action to protect the country’s meat supply from those pesky workers who keep getting sick on the job. And from their lazy coworkers, who don’t want to show up to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the processing line and risk infection themselves.
“We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that’ll solve any liability problems where they had certain liability problems, and we’ll be in very good shape.” Making clear that the issue isn’t sick workers, but sick workers who might sue their employers over unsafe working conditions.
“We’re working with Tyson, which is one of the big companies in that world. And we always work with the farmers,” he continued. “There’s plenty of supply. There’s plenty of — as you know, there’s plenty of supply. It’s distribution, and we will probably have that today solved. It was a very unique circumstance because of liability.”
So, the problem isn’t supply, it’s liability. Or maybe it’s distribution. But it’s definitely not workers getting sick with COVID-19, okay?
The president’s impromptu arglebargling sparked panic that Trump would be forcing workers back into shuttered meatpacking plants with no ability to protect themselves from disease.
And that might still happen, but, as with most Trump pronouncements, the payoff is substantially less than promised.
The meat of the Executive Order (AHEM) designates the plants as critical defense infrastructure under the Defense Production Act. In theory, this allows Trump to unilaterally prioritize contracts, essentially forcing workers back onto the line. But, even as it grumbles incoherently in the direction of state governments, the Order is at pains to emphasize that plants should be opened in accordance with CDC and OSHA guidelines.
In addition, recent actions in some States have led to the complete closure of some large processing facilities. Such actions may differ from or be inconsistent with interim guidance recently issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the Department of Labor entitled “Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers” providing for the safe operation of such facilities.
Which of the 22 plants that already closed do to coronavirus outbreaks is the president referring to here? Is it the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that became the locus of the largest coronavirus cluster in the country before it was finally shuttered? Or the one in Milan, Missouri where workers sued because the pork processing giant wouldn’t slow the line down for workers to wipe their noses after they sneezed?
Trump’s meatpacking Order makes no mention of liability. Instead it attempts to delegate Trump’s DPA powers to agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue, “to determine the proper nationwide priorities and allocation of all the materials, services, and facilities necessary to ensure the continued supply of meat and poultry, consistent with the guidance for the operations of meat and poultry processing facilities jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA.”
That guidance suggests plants to be reconfigured to allow for social distancing, with “physical barriers, such as strip curtains, plexiglass or similar materials, or other impermeable dividers or partitions, to separate meat and poultry processing workers from each other, if feasible.” It calls for dozens of modifications to regular factory operation, such as staggered shifts, sanitizing stations, and updating HR policies “so that employees are not penalized for taking sick leave if they have COVID-19.”
While no one would credit the Trump administration with excessive zeal for regulation, OSHA has already inspected several plants with COVID-19 outbreaks, and its guidelines, while not mandatory, suggest that meat and poultry production lines will have to be substantially reconfigured to meet safety standards.
So deputizing Secretary Perdue to use the DPA to enforce those guidelines probably amounts to a whole lot of nothing. Because if he actually tried use the DPA to force factories to adhere to CDC and OSHA standards in accordance with this Order, he’d wind up slowing production down even further.
Sound and fury, signifying NOTHING. As per usual.
Remarks by President Trump in Meeting with Governor DeSantis of Florida [White House Press Office]
Executive Order on Delegating Authority Under the DPA with Respect to Food Supply Chain Resources During the National Emergency Caused by the Outbreak of COVID-19 [White House Press Office]
Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers Interim Guidance from CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) [CDC]
Elizabeth Dye (@5DollarFeminist) lives in Baltimore where she writes about law and politics.
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