News & Commentary

April 29, 2020

Leigh Thomas

Leigh Thomas is a student at Harvard Law School.

President Trump signed an executive order yesterday classifying the meat and poultry food supply chain as “critical and strategic materials” under the Defense Production Act. The order delegates authority to the Secretary of Agriculture to take appropriate action under that law to keep meat and poultry processors open consistent with OSHA and CDC guidance. Coronavirus outbreaks at processing plants have led to widespread closures, resulting in a 25 percent reduction in beef and pork processing. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union estimates at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus, with twenty worker deaths. Unions and labor advocates are criticizing the order for not taking concerns for worker safety seriously. The UFCW called on the federal government to ensure the safety of workers by giving them access to the federal stockpile of masks, ensuring daily testing, and enforcing physical distancing. The president of the AFL-CIO echoed that call. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said in a statement, “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” according to Politico.

Despite the widespread concern for worker safety, the Trump Administration moved to limit liability for worker exposure to COVID-19 for meat processing plants reopening under the order. The Department of Labor issued a statement indicating it would provide support to meat processing employers sued for alleged workplace exposures if the employer demonstrated “good faith attempts” to comply with the OSHA and CDC joint guidance. Mackenzie covered a suit brought by a worker’s rights nonprofit against Smithfield Foods for failing to provide safe working conditions in its meat processing facilities. Business lobbyists are pushing the Trump Administration and Congress to provide even larger liability shields as the economy reopens more broadly. According to The New York Times, Senator Mitch McConnell indicated that Congress would need to address the liability issue before providing any additional financial relief to states. Democratic leaders will oppose moves to undermine worker protections. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a joint letter on reopening the economy, urging federal, state and local governments “to refrain from converting public health and safety guidance into regulations that may add further challenges for businesses to reopen.”

Spouses of undocumented immigrants may be ineligible to receive stimulus checks even if they are U.S. citizens, The New York Times reports. This is because of a provision prohibiting payments to individuals who file jointly with someone who uses an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, a substitute for a Social Security number commonly used by immigrant workers without legal status. The exclusion punishes mixed status families who report income and pay federal taxes, leaving them without crucial support.

Teachers unions are preparing for reality of returning to school as the economy slowly begins to reopen. The President of American Federation of Teachers told POLITICO funding is needed for public health measures for schools including personal protective equipment. Schools in most states are ordered to remain closed for the rest of the school year, but teachers unions say they will consider strikes or other major protests if schools reopen against advice of medical experts. The AFT’s school reopening plan identifies five conditions for local affiliates to lobby for before school openings: a decline in cases over 14 days; adequate testing, tracing, and isolation; public health measures like temperature taking, cleaning protocols, personal protective equipment and physical distancing measures such as staggered school times; transparency and fidelity to safety measures and enforcement; and increased funding to implement the changes.

The severe mental health toll of the coronavirus crisis on health care workers is a growing concern. As Bloomberg reports, physicians and nurses at hospitals hard hit by the virus are witnessing patients die at rates rarely seen in civilian medicine. The stress and trauma comes on top of long hours, worry about personal safety and concern over exposing family members. Over the weekend, the director of emergency medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital died by suicide after weeks of treating coronavirus patients. While hospitals are trying to provide support in the form of crisis lines and respite stations, some employees are critical of lack of hazard pay. Medical residents at NYU were told by higher ups that asking for hazard pay was “not becoming of a compassionate and caring physician.” Medical residents typically work 80-hour weeks and lack bargaining power because of their status as trainees. The American Medical Association has issued guiding principles recommending residents be eligible for hazard pay.

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