Reps. García and Schakowsky Lead Illinois Members in Demanding OSHA Enact Stronger Protections for Meat Packing Workers

May 8, 2020
Press Release
“Workers cannot be deemed essential and be treated as expendable”

Chicago, IL - Representatives Jesús “Chuy” García (IL-04) and Jan Schakowsky (IL-09) sent a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) today with Members of the Illinois Congressional delegation calling on the agency to fulfill its mission and mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in meatpacking plants. In light of President Trump’s executive order to reopen meat and poultry processing plants in the midst of the global pandemic, the letter calls on the agency to enforce stronger protections for workers.

“All essential workers must be provided the protections they need to do their jobs safely. Despite dozens of deaths throughout Illinois and Chicago, the Trump Administration plans to force workers back to work, endangering their lives in meatpacking industry plants that continue to operate without sufficient safety protocols. It is sickening to deem working people essential, yet treat them as if they were expendable,” said Congressman García. “OSHA must execute its duty and combat this virus by issuing mandatory standards requiring paid time off, testing, protective equipment, hazard pay and a safe work environment.”

“The President is putting meat industry workers in Illinois and across the country at extreme risk, without offering any tests, PPE, or requiring the companies to protect them from getting sick. These workers are predominantly people of color who are already dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates, and I am angry that they have to choose between risking their lives and their livelihood,” said Congresswoman Schakowsky. “The President isn’t concerned about anything more than the bottom line of the meat industry.”

According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, as of May 7, there have been at least 10,800 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 170 plants in 29 states, and at least 49 reported worker deaths at 27 plants in 18 states. At least four plants in Illinois (Aurora, Monmouth, St. Charles and Rochelle) have closed temporarily. A fifth plant in Rantoul  has had at least 52 confirmed COVID cases as of May 7th  but has not closed.

A copy of the letter is below and can also be found here.

Dear Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Sweatt:

We write with deep concerns about the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)’s ability to protect workers in the Chicagoland area, Illinois, and the country in light of President Trump’s executive order granting the Secretary of Agriculture authority to reopen meat and poultry processing plants. Not only are our constituents afraid to return to work as cases of COVID-19 grow quickly, but workers returning from unsafe job sites present a serious public health hazard to our entire community. I urge you to fulfill OSHA’s unique role in confronting this pandemic by ensuring that employers provide their workers with proper protections.

Last week on a call with Members of Congress Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said that workers’ “home and social” lives were to blame for the spread of the virus. The Secretary’s implication is alarming, offensive and does not address the fact that the virus is being spread at work. 

The meat and poultry processing industry is characterized by close quarters and fast-paced work, and it leaves employees particularly susceptible to the virus. Workers’ apprehensions are borne out by the news reports we see every day: nearly 60% of employees at a meat processing plant in Iowa contracted COVID-19; nearly 400 workers at a Missouri plant were found to have the virus despite not having symptoms; At least 145 USDA inspectors are infected and at least three have died of the disease. 

Workers here in Illinois have reason to be concerned. Before President Trump’s executive order, Smithfield planned to close two facilities in our state after employees tested positive for COVID-19. Just this week state officials are identifying new cases connected to Rantoul Foods. Workers in our state have informed us that they are required to work in close proximity to one another and frequently do not have access to PPE and disinfectant. When there is PPE available, employers have required workers to reuse disposable equipment for several shifts. These conditions put workers’ lives at risk and exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.

Before bringing employees back to work, every employer should be required to guarantee necessary protections for their workers. These include access to daily testing; hazard pay; sufficient paid time off to self-quarantine for any employee exposed to the virus regardless of whether they show symptoms; personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer; and work protocols that allow for physical distancing. To ensure that OSHA is doing its part to fight this pandemic, please provide the following information:

  • How is OSHA coordinating with the Centers for Disease Control to ensure that all essential workers have access to regular testing, and that testing capacities expand as new industries come on line?
  • How will OSHA hold employers accountable for creating work plans that maximize physical distance between employees, even if it means slowing down or limiting operations? How does OSHA ensure that these new work plans are implemented?
  • When will OSHA issue mandatory guidance to make sure that employers provide testing, hazard pay, paid time off quarantine and PPE?

If new outbreaks of COVID-19 spread across dangerous workplaces as soon as they reopen, the sacrifices that people in Illinois and across the country have made to fight this virus will have been for nothing. We urge OSHA to fulfill its mission and help mitigate the spread of this pandemic. We look forward to your response to our questions by May 22.

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