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The Price of Meat

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The Price of Meat

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Meatpacking plants have become the new front where workers are fighting management over Covid-19 risk. But unlike medical professionals, who in theory can be hazmat suited up so as to greatly reduce exposure to contagion but aren’t due to the lack of PPE, you can rest assured that level of safety precaution will never happen in slaughterhouses because the pricing and margins of meat production won’t allow for its.

The stakes for meat are high not simply due to the concentration of production, that that loss of not all that many plants has crippled on pork and beef supplies, with pork down by 1/4 and beef off by over 10%. It also results from the fact that the number of cases in these plants is so high that they’ve made their communities into hot spots. So even if the plants were kept open, people in the area would be put at even more health risk. That’s why, three weeks ago, Governor Kristi Noem pressed Smithfield Foods to halt in its ginormous Sioux Falls operation, which had over 200 positive cases. Since then, coronavirus has shuttered at least 15 more plants. Wholesalers are warning of meat shortages in some regions, while in other areas, grocers are engaging in rationing lite (limiting the number of meat purchases), so as to keep shelves stocked and prevent panic buying.

John Tyson of Tyson Foods appears to have goaded Trump into acting via a series of newspaper ads blaring that “The food supply chain is breaking.” Cynics wondered if that was just cover for jacking up prices and giving Tyson cover so as not to be accused of profiteering.

But it seems that the industry honchos really did want the meat plants back in service. Trump quickly issued an executive order, using the Defense Production Act to authorize the plants to reopen. However, the press appears to have gotten out over its skis. Trump’s order isn’t forcing meat processors back into operation:

However, the order does override state orders to suspend operations. And it gives the producers a big fat liability shield. From Mother Jones:

But here’s a theory. Already, 20 meatpacking and food-processing workers have died from COVID-19, and more than 5,000 have contracted the disease, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. What if workers and their families start suing, claiming that the companies’ practices made them sick? Already, one worker—at a Smithfield plant in Milan, Mo.—filed a lawsuit claiming management was not sufficiently protecting workers from the risk of COID-19, and demanding that it follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

A president invoking the Defense Production Act to require meatpacking firms to keep their plants running during outbreaks would provide a “solid basis” for shielding the firms from suits like this, said Jennifer Zwagerman, director of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center. She noted that Walmart was recently sued for wrongful death by the family of a worker who died from COVID-19 complications.

And from Reason:

The big deal in the executive order and interpretations of it may be about meat processing plant liability for employee exposure. From [U.S. Solicitor of Labor Kate S.] O’Scannlain and [OSHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren] Sweatt’s statement:

Courts often consider compliance with OSHA standards and guidance as evidence in an employer’s favor in litigation. Where a meat, pork, or poultry processing employer operating pursuant to the President’s invocation of the DPA has demonstrated good faith attempts to comply with the Joint Meat Processing Guidance and is sued for alleged workplace exposures, the Department of Labor will consider a request to participate in that litigation in support of the employer’s compliance program. Likewise, the Department of Labor will consider similar requests by workers if their employer has not taken steps in good faith to follow the Joint Meat Processing Guidance.

Even CBS worked out that the worker safety bits were a headfake; relevant agencies merely issued guidance

A well argued take:

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts suggested yesterday that workers at meat packing facilities should face loss of unemployment benefits unless they returned to work. This follows on the heels of President Trump’s announcement that he would invoke the Defense Production Act to reopen closed plants in an effort to protect the nation’s food supply-chain. Plants, regardless of safety, will be opened and workers will be coerced with loss of UI benefits so that Americans can get their pork, chicken, and beef in a timely fashion.

Don’t get me wrong. I like meat as much, and probably more, than the next guy and will start getting nervous when these products aren’t in my local grocery store’s refrigerator case. But this one-two policy punch from the White House and Governor Ricketts has a few problems with it. These plants are out of operation not because workers have refused to do their jobs but because of serious COVID-19 outbreaks that forced their closure. There have been hundreds of cases of COVID-19 associated with these facilities and a number of deaths. The counties where the plants are located are becoming their own hot-spots in the unfolding disease crisis. Cramped working conditions and hard physical labor seem to lend themselves to efficient viral transmission.

There’s an even darker side to the situation, though. Somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the meat-packing workforce is made up of undocumented workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador as well as immigrants from East African nations. As Smithfield Foods’ statement on the Sioux Falls outbreak indelicately put it, the living conditions of these immigrants are “different than they are with your traditional American family.” Get it? They are in overcrowded houses with inadequate sanitation. “They” aren’t like “us”. Since many — perhaps a majority — of them lack legal status, they are unable to defend themselves against exploitative or coercive labor practices. As recently as last August, ICE agents were rounding them up by the hundreds for deportation.

We need to make up our minds on a number of issues. On the one hand, we shower praise on “essential workers” in hospitals, grocery stores, sanitation and other occupations. On the other, we engage in acts of economic coercion with vulnerable populations who do some of the dirtiest, most difficult, and most dangerous work around. We build a fence along our southern border to keep out illegal immigrants but then seek to force those who are already here to do jobs American citizens simply will not do.

Why so coy about the source? It’s from Brent Orrell….at the American Enterprise Institute. That American Enterprise Institute. It’s a more straightforward statement in support of meatpacking plant workers than I have yet to see from any Democrat. And while the Orrell does not support strikes, do you seriously think Team Dem would? The press has barely taken note of them. Even Labor Notes has Covid-19 entries only on medical worker and teacher actions (well, and library stafers too).

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