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Tyson employee says HR told him, 'Come to work, you're safe'
02:21 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.

CNN  — 

Get back to work, says President Trump. He might as well add: even if it might kill you.

Raul A. Reyes

Tuesday, he used the Defense Production Act to order meat and poultry processing plants to stay open, despite the coronavirus pandemic. He declared them “critical infrastructure” in an executive order designed to avoid shortages of beef, pork and chicken.

“We’re working very hard,” Trump said, “to make sure our food supply chain is sound and plentiful.”

Given that meat processing plants are Covid-19 hotspots, this order is the height of irresponsibility and cruelty. It endangers the health of some of America’s most vulnerable workers, many of whom are Latino, African American and immigrants. It prioritizes corporate interests over workers’ lives.

Sadly, to this President, immigrant labor is clearly disposable – and always useful for political gain.

Across the country, meatpacking plants have been closing as their employees have gotten sick. Smithfield Foods closed its pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, this month after more than 600 workers tested positive for coronavirus. Last week, Tyson Farms shut down its biggest pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, after more than 180 workers tested positive.

Other plants across the country have similarly closed, with reports of coronavirus-related illness and deaths.

The employees at such plants work under extremely difficult, hazardous conditions. They often work shoulder to shoulder, receiving and killing animals and butchering them for sale. It is grueling, repetitive work that many Americans would shudder at doing, especially given the risk of injury and the low pay.

In 2017, employees at meat plants earned on average about $15 an hour plus benefits, while employees at chicken plants earned on average about a dollar less per hour. The think tank New American Economy estimates that nearly half of this workforce is made up of immigrants, and many are people of color.

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    Trump’s order may well amount to a death sentence for workers in meatpacking plants, who have little choice but to continue to work to provide for their families. In Iowa, for example, citing Iowa state data, The Gazette reports that African Americans and Latinos have disproportionately high rates of coronavirus as a result of their work in meatpacking plants when compared with US Census Bureau figures on their relative representation in the state: While Latinos are 6% of Iowa’s population, they account for 17% of the state’s confirmed coronavirus cases. African Americans are 3% of the state’s population, yet they are 9% of the state’s coronavirus cases.

    These are the people the President wants to continue working for the benefit of American consumers. How unsurprising that the President, who has shown unprecedented cruelty and disdain for immigrants and minorities, now expects them to risk their lives so we all can have an uninterrupted food supply.

    Recall, for one example, that last year, Trump ordered massive sweeps of food processing plants in Mississippi, resulting in hundreds of arrests of undocumented workers, as well as devastated communities.

    The way Trump rolled out this executive order is especially telling. He told reporters he was working with Tyson Foods – as opposed to health and workplace safety experts. The order was developed in consultation with corporate industry leaders.

    “We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that’ll solve any liability problems,” Trump said on Tuesday.

    While his executive order states that employers will follow guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, his main concern seems to be for corporate bosses, not for employees or public health. And does anyone think that the President would be comfortable ordering white-collar professionals to stay at work, despite significant health risks of Covid-19 transmission?

    That Trump was reluctant to invoke the Defense Production Act to expedite the production of personal protection equipment (PPE) for health care workers, and is now invoking the act in a manner that could truly harm meat plant workers, speaks volumes.

    The president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute told the website Vox that meat processing plants are completely disinfected every night after the last shift, and that workers are required to wear masks and face shields when the plants can obtain them.

    Separately, Dean Banks, the head of Tyson Foods, told CNN’s Erin Burnett that “we’re doing everything we can to make sure we take care of our team members.” Banks said that his company was “extremely early in providing as many protective measures as we could possibly imagine.”

    Yet if conditions were safe, employees would not be staging walkouts and protesting at meat plants over working conditions.

    There is no doubt that the meat processing sector is facing a serious threat from the coronavirus pandemic. The United Food and Commercial Workers international Union noted that plant closures have resulted in a 25% decline in pork slaughter capacity and a 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.

    But the union also estimated that 20 meatpacking and food processing union workers have died from the virus so far, and that 6,500 union workers are sick or have been exposed to the virus. So safeguarding our food supply needs to begin with safeguarding workers on the food supply chain. A thoughtful response to this situation would be to prioritize worker safety, not corporate input.

    Trump should be ordering the meat processing industry to comply with the highest standards of social distancing and safety, or else face fines and criminal liability. Instead he is protecting the industry at the expense of its workers.

    Like so many other aspects of his administration’s coronavirus response, Trump’s latest executive order is profoundly misguided and negligent. Meat processing plant employees are not expendable – and should not be forced back into dangerous working conditions.