On Oct. 27, UFCW Local 2 President Martín Rosas testified before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis about COVID-19 safety risks meatpacking workers have faced as frontline workers at a hearing titled “”How the Meatpacking Industry Failed the Workers Who Feed America.” The UFCW also reacted to findings from a new report from Rep. James Clyburn, who serves as chairman of the subcommittee, which shows that meatpacking COVID-19 cases were significantly underestimated and non-union plants had some of the biggest safety failures.
During his testimony, Rosas highlighted safety failures that took place at Seaboard Foods in Guyman, Okla., during the pandemic and the need to protect these frontline workers.
“At Seaboard Foods in Guymon, Oklahoma, for example, in a plant of 2,200, over 1,000 workers have had COVID-19 and at least seven have reportedly died,” said Rosas. “I can tell you from my conversations with the workers, they are suffering long-term consequences of the disease. This is an issue of life and death and protecting those who are going to work every day to put food on our table. In the beginning, not enough was being done to protect these essential workers. The harsh reality is that many of the companies were slow to act in the early days of the outbreak, and whatever progress that was achieved was due to the union demanding action.”
Rosas also called on Congress to take the following actions to protect frontline workers and our food supply:
• Instruct OSHA to issue clear, science-based, emergency, and then permanent, enforceable regulations to protect workers from airborne disease such as COVID-19, including updated ventilation standards.
• Provide OSHA necessary funding such that they can train their staff and do real education and onsite investigation by trained OSHA personnel and enforcement in the meatpacking industry, as well as work with unions, worker health and safety committees/councils, and other employee advocates to make safe workplaces a reality.
• Take steps to require the meatpacking industry to provide wages commensurate with the essential nature of these workers’ jobs, be it through requirements in contracts or incentives.
• Require sick days and necessary paid leave to all workers – not just those whose employers employ less than 500 workers. All workers benefit when those who are sick stay home and do not circulate viruses in the workplace.
• Ensure that employers who benefit from federal dollars adhere to the strictest possible workplace safety standards and provide high-road quality jobs. Take steps to modify language in the Federal Acquisition Regulations, the OMB standards, and USDA’s RFP and contract language to hold employers to such standards.
• Include meatpacking workers and their families when considering infrastructure and social spending initiates, including child care and job training.
• A public review of the true numbers of the COVID-19 infections and deaths in the meatpacking industry during the pandemic.
• A public accounting of the vaccination rates in the meatpacking plants.
The UFCW also issued a statement in reaction to the new meatpacking COVID report, which reveals at least 59,000 meatpacking worker COVID infections, almost triple the 22,700 infections previously estimated by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. The report also highlights safety failures in non-union meatpacking plants where companies were less transparent and workers had fewer protections.
“Today’s report exposes the truth that the deadly impact of the pandemic on America’s meatpacking workers was far worse than previously reported,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone in a statement. “As the largest union for frontline food workers, the UFCW called out the Trump Administration for its failure to hold the industry accountable and we successfully pushed many companies to make the urgent reforms needed to strengthen worker protections. With federal regulators asleep at the switch when the pandemic began and many non-union plants refusing to disclose the full number of COVID worker infections, far too many Americans on the front lines were defenseless against the virus. This report from Chairman Clyburn is shining a light on these safety failures that cannot be ignored. Today, we are calling on Congress and the USDA for immediate action to strengthen protections for meatpacking workers to keep them safe on the job and ensure this never happens again.”