WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin today demanded answers from the CEOs of the nation’s three largest meat processors, JBS USA Holdings, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, on reports of unsafe working conditions and facilities failing to follow recommended safety guidelines to protect frontline workers.
In Wisconsin, outbreaks at meat processing plants have played a central role in the spread of COVID-19 around the state. In Brown County, as of April 29, more than half of the over 900 confirmed cases of COVID-19 are linked to food processing plants and 334 of those cases are linked to a single JBS USA plant in Green Bay. There was also an outbreak at the Patrick Cudahy Smithfield Foods Plant, where 85 workers have tested positive as of May 4.
“I write today with grave concerns about disturbing reports of unsafe working conditions and facilities failing to follow recommended safety guidelines. This unwillingness to implement recommended safety precautions in a timely manner has led to death and the spread of illness from COVID-19 that was preventable,” wrote Senator Baldwin in her letter. “Workers at meat processing plants are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and they deserve to be protected as they take on great personal risk to continue to go to work to ensure Americans’ food supply chain is not disrupted. Your actions directly impact not only these workers’ health and safety, but also that of their family members and surrounding communities.”
Baldwin highlighted numerous media reports with accounts of workers who have not been given adequate protective gear, are allowed to work shoulder to shoulder with each other, and are encouraged to come into work even while sick.
“Major news organizations, including the Washington Post, USA Today, the New York Times and the BBC, as well as dozens of local news outlets, have also reported that workers were not provided face masks in processing plants—despite clear CDC guidance that masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19. In some instances, workers and their local unions repeatedly asked companies to implement preventive measures including asking for time and resources so employees could properly wash hands and sanitize equipment, but to no avail. Now, 5,000 workers in the meatpacking industry either have COVID-19 or have been forced to self-quarantine and 20 workers have died,” wrote Senator Baldwin.
In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued voluntary guidance for the meat packing industry detailing steps employers should take to protect their workers but, Baldwin argues, it’s clear that the voluntary guidelines are not being followed and are not enough to protect workers.
Last month, Senator Baldwin introduced the COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act which would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard that establishes a legal obligation for all workplaces, including meat processing plants, to implement comprehensive infectious disease exposure control plans to keep frontline workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The full letter to JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods is available here.