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Meatpackers welcome President Trump order; others question virus risks

The Tyson Foods pork plant is seen, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Perry, Iowa. AP photo

Big meatpacking companies that have struggled to keep plants open during the coronavirus crisis say they welcome President Donald Trump’s executive order that plants must remain open.

Posted: Apr 29, 2020 6:21 PM

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Big meatpacking companies that have struggled to keep plants running during the coronavirus crisis said Wednesday that they welcomed President Donald Trump’s executive order requiring them to stay open, but unions, some employees and Democrats questioned whether workers could be kept safe.

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Trump used the Defense Production Act to classify meat processors as critical infrastructure to prevent supermarket shelves from running out of chicken, pork and other meat. Meatpacking plants across the country have closed as COVID-19 infections spread rapidly between workers, who often stand shoulder to shoulder on production lines.

Trump, who consulted with industry leaders before issuing the order, said it would relieve "bottlenecks" that the largest companies faced after workers fell ill and some died.

“They are so thrilled,” Trump said Wednesday after getting off a call with meatpacking executives. "They’re so happy. They’re all gung-ho, and we solved their problems."

The executive order was widely seen as giving processors protection from liability for workers who become sick on the job. It came soon after a lawsuit accused Smithfield Foods of not doing enough to protect employees at its plant in Milan, Missouri. A federal judge in that case ordered Smithfield to follow federal recommendations.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union said it would appeal to governors for help, asking them to enforce rules that workers be kept 6 feet apart and that employees be provided with N95 masks and access to virus testing.

“Does it make sense to have meat in the markets if it takes the blood of the people who are dying to make it every day?” asked Menbere Tsegay, a worker at the Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota, where more than 800 workers have confirmed cases of COVID-19. Two people have died, and the plant has been shut down since mid-April.

The threat of the virus has caused workers like Tsegay, a 35-year-old single mother of four children, to weigh whether to risk their health by working. Tsegay said she's not willing to do that.

“I’d rather starve and wait this out than go back to work,” she said.

Companies have already sought changes to reduce risks by providing personal protective equipment, installing plexiglass shields between workers and reducing congestion by staggering shift start times, among other reforms.

The union said plexiglass barriers should not be used as a substitute for putting workers at a safe distance from one another. Union officials also want to slow down meat processing, including getting rid of waivers that allow plants to operate at faster speeds.

Smithfield Foods, which is working on a plan to reopen the Sioux Falls plant, said in a statement welcoming Trump's order that it should make for easier access to protective equipment and testing for employees.

Faced with thinning workforces as workers become infected or stay home in fear, meatpacking companies have also put millions of dollars towards boosting pay and giving workers bonuses to encourage healthy workers to stay on the job.

But Jim Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University, said meatpacking plants will likely continue to have problems finding enough workers operate at full capacity.

“There’s a shortage of workers to begin with, and then with the illnesses and the need to self-quarantine for 14 days after exposure, I’m not clear where the workers come from to keep the plants open,” Roth said.

Trump's order called on the Department of Agriculture to ensure that plants stay open. The USDA said in a statement Wednesday that a team including the Department of Labor and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would review companies' mitigation plans "and work in consultation with the state and local authorities to resume and/or ensure continuity of operations at these critical facilities.”

Twenty meatpacking workers have died nationwide, and another 5,000 have been infected by the virus or shown symptoms of COVID-19, according to the union, which represents roughly 80% of beef and pork workers and 33% of poultry workers nationwide.

Trump promised Wednesday that a report on protecting workers would be coming soon.

Federal agencies have already issued recommendations for operating plants that largely track with steps many companies say they have already taken.

Wendell Young, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the union, described Trump's order as an attempt to appeal to voters rather than to ensure protections.

Marshall Tanick, an employment lawyer in Minneapolis, said the order “does not necessarily immunize" meatpackers from lawsuits.

Legislation to give employers immunity in these situations has been proposed, but it’s "very unlikely that anything like that will be enacted soon at the federal level,” Tanick said. He said such measures might be easier to achieve at the state level, because it’s less burdensome. Without specific legislation immunizing employers, they act at their own risk.

In Worthington, Minnesota, where a JBS pork plant closed last week because of the virus, U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that they hope the plant can reopen soon — but only if workers are protected.

"No executive order is going to get those hogs processed if the people who know how to do it are sick, or do not feel like they can be there,” Walz said.

Marisol Avelar, who works at the Worthington plant, said she dreads the call from management telling her to come back. But she said her three children depend on her, and she has no other job prospects in town.

“At the moment they tell me I’m going to work, I’m going to need the money,” she said.

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Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 454989

Reported Deaths: 6163
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin943781502
Ramsey40624748
Dakota33540354
Anoka31357368
Washington20533237
Stearns18091190
St. Louis13970250
Scott1217799
Wright11791107
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Carver704439
Clay658884
Rice624274
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Blue Earth548033
Crow Wing490478
Otter Tail464268
Chisago459538
Benton423688
Winona394548
Douglas379366
Nobles374647
Mower373729
Goodhue356863
Polk330760
McLeod328147
Beltrami315748
Morrison314545
Lyon305539
Becker288939
Itasca287343
Isanti285643
Carlton284043
Steele278910
Pine270315
Freeborn254123
Todd233730
Nicollet229438
Brown218034
Mille Lacs215645
Le Sueur214216
Cass210724
Meeker201333
Waseca193216
Wabasha17463
Martin171926
Roseau166417
Hubbard150738
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Renville138440
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Fillmore12698
Wadena120818
Rock112012
Aitkin111433
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Marshall70315
Clearwater68814
Lake66315
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Koochiching60610
Lincoln4912
Unassigned47369
Big Stone4693
Grant4388
Norman4258
Mahnomen4167
Kittson37420
Red Lake3204
Traverse2613
Lake of the Woods1961
Cook1160

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 311430

Reported Deaths: 4433
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk46841465
Linn18065279
Scott15872172
Black Hawk14090243
Woodbury13129181
Johnson1230052
Dubuque11625159
Pottawattamie9166115
Dallas908972
Story881038
Cerro Gordo473572
Webster472477
Sioux459757
Warren459339
Clinton458168
Marshall431162
Buena Vista396330
Muscatine396178
Des Moines395143
Plymouth353270
Wapello350798
Jasper332859
Lee324632
Marion309353
Jones274950
Henry267131
Carroll258434
Bremer250148
Crawford234724
Boone222917
Washington222933
Benton213650
Mahaska197937
Jackson195032
Tama190259
Dickinson188829
Kossuth180644
Delaware176236
Clay172521
Wright167124
Fayette166024
Hamilton162330
Buchanan162224
Winneshiek160820
Harrison158562
Hardin157931
Cedar155619
Clayton153849
Butler151724
Page147115
Floyd141636
Cherokee140127
Mills138517
Lyon137533
Poweshiek135224
Hancock131924
Allamakee130930
Iowa127722
Madison123910
Calhoun12349
Grundy122628
Winnebago122229
Jefferson122125
Mitchell116837
Louisa116230
Cass115243
Chickasaw113712
Appanoose112640
Sac112215
Union111623
Emmet111332
Humboldt106819
Shelby105527
Guthrie104424
Franklin103618
Unassigned10160
Palo Alto92411
Montgomery89124
Keokuk86326
Howard85919
Monroe82220
Clarke8129
Pocahontas78211
Ida76030
Davis70321
Greene6977
Adair69620
Monona68518
Lucas66710
Osceola64711
Worth6194
Taylor5999
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Van Buren50215
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