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Coronavirus Updates: Protecting Workers During And After The Pandemic


Around the country, meat processing plants have been forced to close because of coronavirus outbreaks. Take the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo. According to the union there, more than 120 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and four have died. Kim Cordova is the president of UFCW Local 7, representing workers at JBS.

KIM CORDOVA: These workers only signed up to process meat. They didn't sign up to lose their life over this job.


JBS in Greeley has since reopened, and President Trump has indicated he will invoke the Defense Production Act to keep plants open as part of the country's critical infrastructure. But what about the workers?

SHAPIRO: For more on protecting workers in a variety of industries, we are joined by NPR's food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles, business correspondent Alina Selyukh and senior business editor Uri Berliner.

Good to have all three of you here.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Good to be here.


SHAPIRO: Dan, I want to start with you. Yesterday, one of the biggest meat producers in the country, Tyson Foods, took out full-page ads in major newspapers, saying their plants have to keep running to feed the country. That suggests things are pretty bad right now. Give us the lay of the land.

CHARLES: More than a dozen meatpacking plants have shut down, including a few really big ones where the virus just ripped through the workforce. Hundreds of workers got sick. Overall, pork and beef production is down by about a quarter nationwide. Hog farmers are frantic. Some of them have nowhere to send their animals, with the processing plants shut down, no room for them on the farms. They're talking about euthanizing animals.

But the question is, how - like, (inaudible) could these plants start up again? I mean, how far apart would the workers need to stand? If they're still standing close together as usual - maybe these plants can only operate safely if every worker gets tested to make sure none of them are spreading the virus. The main union that represents workers in this industry issued a demand today, saying that these workers should be designated temporarily as first responders, with priority for getting access to testing and also protective equipment.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. And I wonder what that would mean for other people working at supermarkets and warehouses and fast-food drive-through restaurants that have stayed open. I mean, Alina, many of those businesses are actually hiring right now. How are they dealing with worker safety?

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Well, some of the workers have been very vocal to say that they haven't dealt that well. To follow Dan's point, the unions there have also called for these workers to be called first responders, with priority access to testing and equipment. The workers have pointed out that lots of stores and warehouses have had coronavirus cases. Some workers also have died.

Here's Rachel Beltz (ph). She's an Amazon worker from a warehouse in New Jersey talking on an advocacy call yesterday.


RACHEL BELTZ: What we need is for Amazon to not only be a little more humane, but we need them to step it up safety-wise. We need them to step it up cleanliness-wise. And we need them to act like they care about us.

SHAPIRO: What has Amazon and other similar big companies said about this?

SELYUKH: Yeah. Well, Amazon and many other companies have maintained that they do care quite a bit about their workers, that they are taking extreme measures that are far and beyond what they've ever done before. In Amazon's case, they say they're far beyond what other retailers are doing.

It did take a few weeks for all these essential companies to scale up safety measures. They did start providing masks and gloves and a little bit later decided that masks should actually be required. Grocery stories (ph) had put up plexiglass shields around cash registers, limiting hours of their opening. They have started checking workers' temperatures when they clock in.

Workers, to this day, are still protesting - Target, Whole Foods, Instacart, lots of companies - demanding better working conditions, more ways to take time off without losing pay. And they're saying if there is a coronavirus case in a store warehouse, that facility should be closed, not reopened.

SHAPIRO: OK. And to expand the conversation to office workplaces, Uri, I know you've been looking at whether these employers are ready to reopen. What's happening in those kinds of work sites?

BERLINER: Right. Well, many companies with offices are going to be really cautious about reopening, and that's what I'm hearing from business leaders and management consultants. You know, think about it. A lot of white-collar jobs can be done on a computer and a phone. They're being done remotely right now, so there's not going to be any urgency to bring those workers back and potentially risk their health. You know, doing that could potentially raise liability issues if companies order their workers back and some of them get sick, especially if it's a job that could've been done remotely anyway.

SHAPIRO: When offices do reopen, what are they going to look like? I mean, what will be different?

BERLINER: It's going to be strange. That's for sure. It's going to be awkward. The office culture that so many people are used to - chats by the watercooler, in the hallways - that's going to change, at least for a while. There may be temperature checks when you go to work, or your colleagues may be wearing masks at their desks, staggered shifts so there are fewer people in the office. And the entire physical workplace may be reengineered.

I spoke with David Lewis. He's the CEO of an HR consulting company called OperationsInc. He's been on a lot of these meetings, and he says there's just so much to figure out, like what to do with those open offices that have become so common in recent years.

DAVID LEWIS: You're going to have to pull out the tape measure and start taking a look at where you've got proximities. You're going to need to provide some - I would view as - formal education to your employees to change behavior about where they walk when they head in a particular direction, about how close they get to individuals. The kitchen, to me, the pantry in a company, is going to be a nightmare.

BERLINER: Yeah, so kitchens, pantries - those are places where people normally interact a lot. You've got food, dishes. You can understand the concern there.

SHAPIRO: So those are questions that companies are going to have to answer inside their workplaces. But what about the things they don't have control over - what, you know, their workers do outside of the office?

BERLINER: Well, one big thing is whether there are going to be rules, sort of baseline safety requirements about reopening. What are they? Who's going to set them, the federal government or the states?

And then there's child care. I can't stress enough what a big deal this is for employers. How can companies ask their employees to report to the office if the kids are home and the schools are closed or the summer camps are shut? This is a huge obstacle to reopening, and that's another reason why those - if those organizations where remote work is possible - many employees will continue to work from home for a good while longer. And that probably means months, not weeks.

SHAPIRO: Well, there are lots of other types of businesses that have also been shut down. I mean, I'm thinking, like, department stores and malls, auto plants and factories. Alina, how are they planning to reopen?

SELYUKH: Well, across the board, it's fair to say they're realizing they will not reopen as soon as they'd expected. At auto plants, as you mentioned, a big portion of autoworkers are part of a powerful union which has resisted returning to work so far, and it's still in talks about a future date.

In retail, clothes have taken a big hit. People stop splurging, you know, when you don't have a salary or really anywhere to go in these clothes. And so some companies, like Gap, are starting to warn that some stores may never reopen. They just might not make it. Malls and department stores, broadly, are starting to look at reopening their doors, but again, maybe taking some of the measures Uri mentioned - masks, temperature checks, shorter hours, limited number of people - all to keep people safe.

SHAPIRO: Back to you, Dan. The food supply is essential in a way that some other shopping is not. So what's the latest on whether President Trump will invoke the Defense Production Act to get meatpacking plants running again?

CHARLES: We are waiting to see this order. He said earlier in the day it would solve any liability problems that companies might have, which suggests it will protect the companies from being sued for endangering workers. What's really not clear is if the government does order plants to operate, what level of safety will it require? That will be really important.

SHAPIRO: So is the food supply in danger?

CHARLES: It depends what you call danger. Production is down, and there could soon be less beef or pork in the stores. But honestly, there is still a lot of meat for sale. I mean, for context, the U.S. produces so much pork in normal times that last year, it exported about 30% of it.

SHAPIRO: All right.

CHARLES: So there are people working in these plants who say this is not a national emergency. Before we go back to work, we want to make sure we're safe.

SHAPIRO: OK. We need to add Amazon is a financial sponsor of NPR.

That was NPR's Dan Charles, Alina Selyukh and Uri Berliner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
As Senior Business Editor at NPR, Uri Berliner edits and reports on economics, technology and finance. He provides analysis, context and clarity to breaking news and complex issues.
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.