As millions of Americans attempt to forge some semblance of normal this Thanksgiving, Sentient Media outlines the human cost workers experience in preparing around 45 million turkeys for this year’s holiday. Like much of the meatpacking industry, turkey processing plants have undergone their fair share of COVID-19 outbreaks this year, including at least one incident in May with at least 138 employees infected. Even before the pandemic, a report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) based on data from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) found poultry processing one of America’s most dangerous industries. With plants now poised to speed up slaughter lines thanks to a new USDA rulemaking, workers face even greater risk.
Across the meatpacking industry, several plants and businesses have made headlines for labor abuses over the past few weeks. In Iowa, a new legal filing by the family of former Tyson employee Isidro Fernandez, who died in April from exposure to coronavirus at Tyson’s Waterloo pork processing plant, alleges that the company displayed a “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety” that resulted in over 1,000 employee coronavirus infections. In Nebraska, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on Monday against Noah’s Ark Processors, arguing that the company’s Hastings-based beef processing plant constitutes a public nuisance due to its failure to protect against COVID-19 transmission. Among other failings, plaintiffs allege that the plant has neglected to provide clean masks, enforce social distancing, or provide paid sick leave or on-site testing to workers. Further south, meanwhile, a Department of Labor Wage & Hour investigation of three Mississippi-based Koch Foods poultry plants uncovered multiple labor and wage law violations last week. According to investigators, plant management failed to pay employees’ final paychecks, illegally deducted the cost of protective equipment from workers’ wages, and hired at least one underage minor.
As the Trump administration inches toward accepting electoral reality, officials are fast-tracking several rulemakings intended to weaken labor and environmental protections ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration in January. One rule, published on November 13, would restrict pension managers’ ability to consider the social and environmental impact of their investments. Another proposed rulemaking by the Department of Labor would make it easier for rideshare companies to classify their workers as independent contractors. The USDA also is moving forward with its fast-tracked rulemaking to speed up poultry plants before January, and on Tuesday the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed to allow tech firms to pay up to 15% of employees’ wages in equity rather than cash. Other subtler steps have also been taken to hobble the Biden administration’s regulatory efforts; yesterday, the Department of Labor cemented its decision to force through the allegedly retaliatory demotion of one of the Department’s employee-friendly chief litigators, Janet Herold, before Inauguration Day.
Looking ahead, however, the incoming Biden administration still enjoys broad discretion to rebalance federal policymaking in workers’ favor. Among other possibilities, Thomas Geoghegan proposes in The New Republic that the Biden administration could dramatically reinvigorate organized labor by requiring all federal contractors to have a collective bargaining agreement, or by giving preference to all who do so. While a somewhat similar executive order under the Clinton Administration was struck down by the D.C. Circuit, Geoghegan argues that the Biden administration could invoke Section 1 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to avoid much of the same legal trouble. Meanwhile, as organized labor remains split over whom to back to head the Department of Labor, California Labor Secretary Julie Su has seen her stock rise as a widely acceptable pick who brings diversity to the Department. Whoever lands the top post at the Department will exercise tremendous sway over the early Biden administration’s policies on workers’ rights.