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Meat And Poultry Plant Safety Regulations During Coronavirus

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This hour, we're taking another look at how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting different groups in different ways. Later, we're going to hear from a disability rights advocate and a civil rights lawyer about the civil rights issues they say are emerging in the pandemic. But we're going to start with the concerns of workers in meat and poultry processing plants. Last Tuesday, President Trump issued an executive order requiring meat and poultry plants to remain open during the pandemic. It was issued to, quote, "ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans" - unquote.

But this comes as some of these plants are becoming hotspots of the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of the end of April, nearly 5,000 meat and poultry workers in 19 states tested positive for COVID-19. And that's just what we know. The CDC says not all states with confirmed cases in these facilities provided them with data. And that's in addition to other limitations, like the lack of a nationwide testing regimen.

And this got us wondering about how these workers could be protected as they work through the pandemic. To help us better understand this, we've called two people with firsthand knowledge of the industry. David Michaels is the former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA. He's an epidemiologist by training and is currently a professor of public health at George Washington University.

Welcome, professor Michaels. Thanks for joining us.

DAVID MICHAELS: Very happy to be on your show today.

MARK LAURITSEN: Also with me is Mark Lauritsen, and he is the international vice president and director of the Food Processing, Packing and Manufacturing Division of the United Food and Commercial Workers. That's the union that represents workers in meat processing plants. He's also a former hog slaughterer.

Mr. Lauritsen, thank you so much for joining us as well.

LAURITSEN: Michel, it's good to be with you today.

MARTIN: So, professor Michaels, I'm going to start with you. We want to note that OSHA issued guidelines for how meat and poultry processing plants can keep workers safe. Is this the strictest form of rulemaking that the agency has? I mean, are these enforceable? Or are these just recommendations?

MICHAELS: No, they are purely recommendations, and that's really the problem. And we've had recommendations from OSHA and CDC for several months now that apply to those plants. But the fact that we have thousands of workers who have been infected and many who have died is very powerful proof that recommendations aren't enough. What OSHA needs to do is issue an emergency standard - and not just for meat processing, but for the whole country as we open up.

MARTIN: On Friday, OSHA tweeted out enforcement guidelines regarding workers in meat and poultry processing plants, and it encourages plants to follow OSHA safety guidance. But then the Department of Labor issued a statement saying that state and local governments can't close them down for not following these guidelines. So what does that mean?

MICHAELS: Exactly. The Department of Labor's job is to make sure workers are safe, not to protect employers from lawsuits, you know, when they make workers safe. But that's what the Labor Department is saying - that they want employers, corporations to follow the guidelines. But local authorities can't close them down, and actually that they will intervene in lawsuits on behalf of the corporations.

MARTIN: Let me turn to Mark Lauritsen now. Mr. Lauritsen, I know you're talking to folks since the outbreak occurred. I know you're talking to workers. So what are they telling you? Are they - are you hearing from people? Have any of these social distancing guidelines been brought into play? Have workers been spread out? Are they wearing protective gear and the like?

LAURITSEN: The problem is we have a hit-and-miss enforcement in people that are - or employers that are willing to follow those guidelines. So we have a hit-and-miss. In some facilities, we'll have people, largely because of absences, now that we can spread out, and we can institute a physical distancing. But because we have no clear guidelines where we have to have certain standards throughout the industry, it's very hit-and-miss.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Lauritsen, let me stick with you for a second. The CDC came out with a report last month after touring a pork processing plant in South Dakota. This was the Smithfield plant that had an outbreak of coronavirus, has become a hot spot in that state. You know, one thing that stood out is that the report said that some 40 different languages were spoken - are spoken among the workers there.

And so can you just give us a picture of who is working at these plants? And, you know, are there mechanisms for, you know, educating people about worker safety and their rights and proper procedures there? Do you understand what I'm asking?

LAURITSEN: Yeah. So the meatpacking industry has always been jobs that are very diverse. Large immigrant populations, refugee populations find it as a place to land when they first enter the United States. So we do have an awful lot of languages that are spoke in any particular plant. And it could be different dialects and different languages in different facilities. So when the CDC comes out and says there is a communication problem, there's always been a communication problem, and it's incumbent upon the employers to know who their workforce are and to communicate that well.

MARTIN: What else do you think that people should know that they might not know about this industry?

LAURITSEN: These workers are hardworking individuals that have showed up to do their job even in tough circumstances before this, and they have been deemed essential employees. We should be treated as essential employees, not as sacrificial employees. And don't forget that even post-COVID-19, this country who's deemed these workers is essential is going to have to take care of these workers on the mental health side because we're seeing a lot of mental health issues that are starting to pop up.

MARTIN: Professor Michaels, what are you going to be - what are you going to be looking to as plants either reopen or continue to operate in the next couple of weeks as this story continues?

MICHAELS: What we're seeing in some communities where there is testing is that the rates of disease are just skyrocketing. And I suspect we're going to see that more and more as testing becomes more widespread. OSHA will step in and say, you have to do better. And if OSHA doesn't do that, you know, Congress is looking at legislation saying that OSHA must step in and issue mandatory guidelines. And I suspect that will become a front-and-center discussion as other industries open up in all of these communities.

MARTIN: David Michaels is the former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He currently teaches public health at George Washington University. Mark Lauritsen is the director of the Food Processing, Packing and Manufacturing Division of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

MICHAELS: Well, thank you, Michel.

LAURITSEN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.