At the height of the pandemic, meatpacking officials pushed “baseless” claims about meat shortages to keep plants running and unemployment benefits away from employees, 269 of which eventually would die due to COVID-19, according to a new House committee report titled “How the Trump Administration Helped the Meatpacking Industry Block Pandemic Worker Protections.”
The providers include many in Nebraska like JBS and Smithfield. The state legislature twice struck down legislation that would have added protections for workers like social distancing and paid sick leave. Industry representatives also pointed to Gov. Pete Ricketts as an ally in the fight to keep employees on lines.
“Whether due to fear or a misguided idea that unemployment benefits are available simply because of fear of going to work, hearing a strong and consistent message from the President or Vice President like that delivered by the Governor of Nebraska yesterday is vital: being afraid of COVID19 is not a reason to quit your job and you are not eligible for unemployment compensation if you do,” one industry leader said on April 3, 2020.
In a review of 151,000 pages of documents, the House committee tasked with investigating the nation’s pandemic response found Tyson Foods, along with other industry leaders, prepared the draft that eventually became President Donald Trump’s April 2020 executive order keeping plants open and giving workers few options to seek pandemic relief. The report also alleges that while industry leaders misled the public with unfound claims that worker shortages would lead to serious problems with the nation’s meat supply, they also worked closely with the Trump administration to keep them free from oversight or scrutiny.
“Meatpacking companies knew the risk posed by the coronavirus to their workers and knew it wasn’t a risk that the country needed them to take,” according to the report by the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis released Thursday. “They nonetheless lobbied aggressively — successfully enlisting [the U.S. Agriculture Department] as a close collaborator in their efforts — to keep workers on the job in unsafe conditions, to ensure state and local health authorities were powerless to mandate otherwise, and to be protected against legal liability for the harms that would result.”
Little federal oversight came from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Out of $4 million in penalties it assigned in 2020, the agency fined the multibillion-dollar industry less than $100,000.
Nebraska also failed to provide state-level oversight. Employees of one of Nebraska’s largest industries are supposed to be protected by the Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights, which includes the right to a safe workplace. But the part-time meatpacking bill of rights coordinator within the Nebraska Department of Labor tasked with upholding those rights spent as little as 2.23% of her time in one month helping workers. Instead she was pulled into processing a deluge of other requests for unemployment benefits.
But even if the rights coordinator had spent all her time assisting meatpacking plants, they have little enforceable power.
Legislation by Tony Vargas in both 2020 and 2021 would have changed that, along with providing emergency protections to meatpacking workers, many of whom are immigrants or other vulnerable populations. But twice that legislation stalled in the Unicameral.
“The government needs to step in,” said Eric Reeder, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 293 in February 2021. “They need to tell them, just like years ago when we had sweatshops where people would get hurt, that you can’t treat people like this.”
In the lead up to the April 2020 executive order, officials from Tyson and Smithfield held calls with Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short. It’s estimated that more than 334,000 COVID-19 cases can be traced back to meatpacking plants, causing $11 billion in economic damages according to the University of California at Davis. In responses given to The Washington Post, officials disagreed with the report’s findings.
The concerns we expressed were very real and we are thankful that a true food crisis was averted and that we are starting to return to normal,” Jim Monroe, Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs told the Post.
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