Federal Employees News Digest

Feds under threat: AFGE warns WH order endangers meat inspectors

President Donald Trump issued an executive order April 28 requiring America’s meat and poultry plants to stay open—and federal inspectors to keep monitoring them—after a month that saw multiple processing sites shut down due to deadly outbreaks of COVID-19.

Identifying meat processors as critical infrastructure, the White House is promoting the order as a necessary step to preserve faltering food supply lines.

“It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry … in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans,” the order stated. The recent closures “threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.” The order tapped the secretary of Agriculture to ensure that companies keep plants open, in part under the authority of the Defense Production Act.  

But the tough executive order is running up against a very challenging, very stubborn state of emergency. Despite extraordinary government and private-sector efforts to create “social distancing,” the coronavirus continues with tens of thousands of new cases reported every week—and more than 1,000 deaths per day. The virus has claimed more than 60,000 U.S. lives in just two months.

This crippling contagious force is only amplified in the close quarters of meat processing plants. Thousands of workers and 137 USDA inspectors have tested positive, with two confirmed dead from the disease, according to the American Federation of Government Employees. Yet, even after this toll, many large-scale meat processing facilities continue business as usual, placing workers and inspectors in very close quarters—often only two or three feet apart.

In the wake of major plant closures and heavy COVID-19 casualties at plants in far-flung towns like Waterloo, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D., major unions are fighting back. Private-sector unions and federal employee unions like AFGE are pushing to protect plant workers and federal inspectors.

“Federal food inspectors entering slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities lack basic protective equipment, including face masks and hand sanitizer, and social distancing is impossible since they must work nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with front-line plant employees,” said Paula Schelling, acting president of AFGE Council 45. The union represents about 6,500 federal meat inspectors nationwide. Trouble in the industry has implications for far more workers—some 515,000 people work in the meat and poultry processing industries, according to the North American Meat Institute.

In short, without far greater efforts at distancing and testing, the plants could continue to sicken and kill people by the score—workers and federal inspectors alike.

“This is a recipe for disaster,” declared Schelling, the day after the order was issued.

“This administration seems more concerned with making good on its ‘reopening America’ slogan than protecting the health and safety of front-line workers and American consumers,” Everett Kelley, the union’s president, said.

AFGE officers agree that, as things stand, the president’s order requiring meat plants to remain open endangers the safety of food inspectors and plant workers.

“The priority needs to be on the safety of the workers—everyone working in the plant, and the American consumer,” Tim Kauffman, a spokesman for AFGE, told FEND. “These should be the paramount priorities here—everything else is secondary.”

“We need more tracing and testing,” Kauffman said. “Now, the private companies are testing the workers, which is good. When they closed some of these plants down, and then reopened, workers are tested. But somehow not the feds—I can tell you, the feds were not tested,” he said.

“And these federal inspectors are working right beside the other workers, and if they get sick, then a lot of other people at the plant will get sick too,” Kauffman continued. “Everyone—the workers and the inspectors—have been right in that line, all working close together, with all that food whizzing by.”

“Finally, there are some plants where companies are putting studying or actually putting in plastic shields along the line,” he said, “but there are many facilities where management should be doing a lot more to protect against COVID-19, which they are just not doing.”

“Most important, there are continuing problems for employees who just want to get the test,” Kauffman said. “Everyone is still being very stingy with the tests, they just are not readily available. Of course, that’s a main reason why most of us everywhere, basically, are still self-quarantined or locked down right now.”

“The president’s order will do nothing to improve the unsustainable status quo,” AFGE’s Kelley said. “Without enforceable protections for both front-line plant workers and federal food inspectors, the president’s action will result in more preventable exposures and possibly deaths.”

“While the president’s order requiring plants to remain open is mandatory, compliance with the government’s safety guidelines is not,” Schelling noted, pointing out a striking imbalance between consumers’ rights and workers’ rights. “The health and safety of federal inspectors and plant workers is in the hands of an industry that the administration is now pressuring to stay open, no matter the costs,” she said. “Without protective equipment and testing of all workers, more employees will get sick and the safety of our food supply will be compromised.”

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