An Open Letter Calling for Swift Action Towards Workers’ and Communities’ Health and Safety

Nearly 100 food, labor, and environmental organizations are calling for swift action to ensure workers’ and communities’ health and safety.

HEAL Food Alliance and Food Chain Workers Alliance are proud to unite with our allies in solidarity with frontline food workers. Below is an open letter calling on the Department of Labor, OSHA, and Congressional representatives to ensure the protection of workers’ lives and livelihoods are protected. 

During the time of sending this letter, about 5000 meatpacking workers had tested positive for the virus but the number has since tripled. You can find the latest figures here.  


For immediate release: May 19, 2020

HEAL and 100 other worker, environmental and food and agriculture groups sent a letter to Labor Sec. Eugene Scalia and members of Congress calling on them to protect meatpacking and meat production workers and guarantee them hazard pay after the Trump Administration took executive action forcing meatpacking companies to remain open through the duration of the Coronavirus pandemic. This order impacts 194,000 employees around the country who are required to continue working in close proximity to others, some of whom are coming to work sick without proper PPE. 

Safety regulations within these facilities are not nearly strict enough to protect workers from contracting Covid-19. The high-density working style, the lack of PPE and paid sick leave create an extremely hazardous environment for employees, putting them and their communities at risk of major disease spread. The House passed the HEROES Act on Friday, which included provisions to compel the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an enforceable Emergency Temporary Standard aimed at protecting workers. However, those measures are unlikely to be taken up by the Senate.

The letter says,  “At a time when frontline workers still do not have basic health and safety workplace protections and are dying on the job, we must strengthen worker protections–not weaken them. Sending workers into unsafe workplaces without adequate protection is completely unacceptable and will lead to more illness and deaths, both for workers, and for surrounding communities. Food workers are not disposable. Public health must be a priority over profits.”

Specifically, the letter calls for:

  • OSHA to issue and enforce an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect food workers and all essential workers from COVID-19; 
  • Congress to immediately pass legislation to compel Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an enforceable Emergency Temporary Standard—as is laid out in H.R. 6559—and provide OSHA with commensurate funds to implement this mandate; and
  • Congress to immediately pass legislation to mandate employers to provide premium pay at a minimum of time and half to all workers given the increasingly hazardous, deadly conditions.

Over the course of this pandemic, over 17,500 workers have become infected with Coronavirus due to overcrowding in facilities, and at least 65 people have died. Despite these numbers, OSHA is not taking any steps to ensure the safety of all essential employees. This shows workers and neighboring communities that their health and safety rights are not the priority and they have little recourse to improve their situation. This intimidates workers from protecting themselves, while some workers who are opting to stay home to protect their health and the health of their families are being told they will be denied unemployment benefits. 

OSHA has also failed to ensure workers are protected from the virus and its impacts, refusing to issue mandatory health and safety standards for employers that require companies to protect frontline food chain workers and other workers at risk. With the refusal to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard, OSHA has allowed companies to continue to evade responsibility for worker deaths and exposure to illness.

Without basic health and safety protections in the workplace, essential workers will continue to be exposed to the virus risking infection, and even death. All essential workers need to rely on the same standard of safety and the assurance that they are protected while being forced to continue working. 

The full text of the letter, along with the list of organizations that signed on is included below:


TO:

Eugene Scalia, U.S. Secretary of Labor 

Loren Sweatt, Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor  

Our Congressional Members  

Re: Stop Sacrificing Meatpacking Workers Lives 

“It is profoundly disturbing that President Trump is using his authority to force workers into dangerous conditions without providing enforceable safety standards to protect them from COVID-19.”  –  House Labor and Education Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03)

Dear Secretary Scalia, Assistant Secretary Sweatt, and our Congressional Members  

On April 28th, the Trump Administration announced it would invoke the Defense Production Act to compel meatpacking companies to stay open during the pandemic. We, the undersigned organizations, are alarmed at this extraordinary measure, which, in our view, demonstrates that the health and safety and the very lives of meatpacking workers are secondary to keeping the economy open for profit.  

This executive order could impact 194,000 processing workers around the country who are still on the job. Reports from the ground tell us that workers—the majority of whom are immigrants and workers of color—are still at grave risk. Meatpacking plants are not practicing social distancing, not providing adequate PPE to workers, and are not sufficiently sanitizing plants to limit exposure to risk. 

“Sending meatpacking workers back to work without protections and mandatory standards is sending workers to die or to get sick,” says Axel Fuentes of the Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA). RCWA has filed a lawsuit against a Smithfield plant in an effort to force the company to protect workers’ health and safety. “If we have to fight in courts to make only one plant provide safety equipment to workers, can you imagine what will be required to compel other employers to act?”

During the time of writing this letter, reports show that over 5,000 meat processing workers have tested positive for the virus and at least 20 workers have died due to COVID-19 exposure. Over 100 USDA inspectors have also tested positive. These deaths could have been prevented and are a tragic failure of government oversight to ensure workplace health and safety. House Labor and Education Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott highlighted this in his April 28 statement, “If President Trump orders people to work in meat processing plants but refuses to protect their health and safety, the result will be more preventable illnesses [and] the tragic deaths of workers across the country.”

Furthermore, we understand this measure and Trump’s remarks are intended to give companies the message that they will be protected from liability. This message was reinforced in an April 28th statement by the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA). This tells workers and neighboring communities that if their health and safety rights are violated they will have little recourse to improve their situation, effectively intimidating workers from protecting themselves. Furthermore, workers who are opting to stay home to protect their health and the health of their families are being told they will be denied unemployment benefits. This is a clear tactic of intimidation and retaliation. 

OSHA has also failed to ensure workers are protected from the virus and its impacts, refusing to issue mandatory health and safety standards for employers that require companies to protect frontline food chain workers and other workers at risk. With the refusal to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard, OSHA has allowed companies to continue to evade responsibility for worker deaths and exposure to illness.

 At a time when frontline workers still do not have basic health and safety workplace protections and are dying on the job, we must strengthen worker protections–not weaken them.  A failure to act will result in the needless loss of more lives, and more family members mourning their loved ones in communities across the country. As regulatory agency leadership and public servants, it is your civil duty to do everything within your authority to ensure workers are kept safe in the workplace.

In solidarity with all frontline food workers—many of whom are taking courageous action to organize for better protections on the job—we urge you to take immediate action by committing to the following: 

OSHA must issue and enforce an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect food workers and all essential workers from COVID-19. 

  • Congress must immediately pass legislation to:
  • Compel OSHA to issue an enforceable Emergency Temporary Standard—as is laid out in H.R. 6559—and provide OSHA with commensurate funds to implement this mandate. 
    • Mandate employers to provide premium pay at a minimum of time and half to all workers given the increasingly hazardous, deadly conditions. 
    • Sending workers into unsafe workplaces without adequate protection is completely unacceptable and will lead to more illness and deaths, both for workers, and for surrounding communities. Food workers are not disposable. Public health must be a priority over profits. 

 We expect that you will take swift action to ensure workers’ and communities’ health and safety.

Signed,

Agricultural Justice Project
Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network
Artisan Grain Collaborative
Better Food Foundation
Black Zocalo
Calypso Farm
Castanea Fellowship
Center for Popular Research, Education and Policy
Chesapeake Foodshed Network
Chicago Food Policy Action Council
Coalition for Valley Neighborhoods
Coastal Enterprises, Inc.
Community Food Advocates
Corporate Accountability
Dakota Resource Council
Dakota Rural Action
DC Greens
Domestic Fair Trade Association
Ecological Farming Association
Edible Alaska
Environmental Working Group
Family Farm Defenders
Farm Aid
Farm Forward
Farms to Grow, Inc.
Fertile Acres
Food & Water Watch
Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT)
Food Empowerment Project
Food First
Food Industry Employment Program
Food Policy Council of San Antonio
Food Sleuth, LLC
Food System 6
Friends of the Earth
Gallatin Valley Farm to School
Green State Solutions
Greenpeace USA
Health Care Without Harm
Idaho Organization of Resource Councils
Indiana Farmers Union
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Italian Inspirations
Jefferson County Food Policy Council
Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
La Semilla Food Center
Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, Teachers College Columbia University
League of Conservation Voters
Missouri Coalition for the Environment
National Black Food and Justice Alliance
National Farm to School Network
NC Environmental Justice Network
Nell Newman Foundation
New Haven Food Policy Council
NOFA-VT
Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire
Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY)
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG)
NRDC
Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association
One Fair Wage
Open Markets Institute
Organic Consumers Association
Organic Growers School
Organic Planet LLC
OrganicEye
Oxfam America
Pesticide Action Network
Pinnacle Prevention
Pittsburgh Food Policy Council
Pittsburgh Food Policy Council
Positive Women’s Network
Pot Pie Factory, Inc.
Race Forward
Real Food Generation
Real Food Media
Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA
Sacramento Food Policy Council
Slow Food Club Univeisty of Vermont
Slow Food USA
Socially Responsible Agricultural Project
The Common Market
The Taft Organization
Tucson CSA
Union of Concerned Scientists
United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE)
Virginia Association for Biological Farming
Wallace Center at Winrock International
Western Colorado Alliance
Western Organization of Resource Councils
Whitestone Mountain Orchard
WhyHunger
WNYCOSH
World Animal Protection

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