Va. attorney general demands the Trump administration establish protections for poultry workers

A car at an April 27 rally on the Eastern Shore in support of poultry processing plant workers.
A car at an April 27 rally on the Eastern Shore in support of poultry processing plant workers.(WHSV)
Published: May. 12, 2020 at 3:52 PM EDT
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Virginia's attorney general is calling on the Trump administration to take immediate action to protect the health and safety of meat and poultry workers as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Meat and poultry processing plants across the United States have seen COVID-19 outbreaks, with over 10,000 confirmed cases and at least 45 deaths among workers.

As outbreaks spread, a number of facilities around the country, including Tyson and Smithfield locations, closed their doors. The resulting supply chain issues and meat shortages for some industries led to President Trump signing an executive order on April 28 to invoke the Defense Production Act and deem meat and poultry processing plants critical infrastructure, effectively pushing them to stay open and prevent further supply chain disruptions.

Attorney General Mark Herring, along with a coalition of 19 other state attorneys general, argues that the president's order "attempts to force employees to continue working without imposing adequate and enforceable mandates to protect their health and safety."

Citing Virginia's processing plants in the Eastern Shore and the Shenandoah Valley, each of which have seen serious effects from COVID-19, Herring says the president needs to take action to protect worker safety if those workers are being required to show up each day.

has confirmed that multiple employees there have tested positive at their site, though managers said they don't believe the virus was transmitted at the poultry plant, and no exact number was provided. Cargill, in Dayton,

, but also never provided an exact number of cases at the site.

Earlier in the pandemic,

amid the pandemic, and protests on behalf of poultry workers have happened at a variety of facilities over the past month.

The situation at other facilities remains unknown because Virginia code protects them from having to publicly release any employee health information unless they choose to do so.

“If President Trump is going to force poultry and meat processing plant employees to continue working in these dangerous conditions than he must also implement critical safety measures to prevent them from getting sick,” said Attorney General Herring. “Meat and poultry processing plants, including those on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, have become hotbeds for coronavirus and it is just wrong to have anyone working in these conditions without proactively making sure that all necessary safeguards are put in place to keep them protected from infection. These are human beings working in these plants not machines and they must be treated better.”

The incidence of COVID-19 infections among meat and poultry industry workers is so severe that many plants have reported hundreds of workers testing positive. The clusters of infections at the facilities also lead to surges in their surrounding communities as workers, often people of color making low wages, return to housing which their wages allow them to afford, which often puts many in close quarters with others, spreading the virus further.

Attorney General Herring claims that the industry "has continued to operate the plants without instituting adequate health and safety measures."

However, the Virginia Poultry Federation has said they've taken " significant and unprecedented steps" to protect workers, including increased sanitation and cleaning, increased frequency of hand washing, required face masks or shields for employees, social distancing in common areas and, if possible on production lines, plexiglass dividers between workers on production lines, and heightened employee screenings.

In Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam directed Virginia's Department of Labor to make sure Virginia's meat processing facilities follow new

, as well as OSHA guidance.

But Herring says "despite fast-moving disassembly lines requiring workers to stand shoulder to shoulder for hours, efforts to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and enforce social distancing measures have been sporadic at best. Some companies also continue to impose punitive measures for employees who fall ill and are unable to work. Rather than slowing line speeds to enable safer working conditions, plants have sought, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved, new line speed waivers that force employees to work faster and closer to one another. "

President Trump's executive order instructs the Department of Agriculture to ensure processing facilities continue to operate under voluntary guidelines for promoting safe working conditions, but Herring says it does not mandate those measures or commit to enforcing them.

In a joint letter from the 20 attorneys general, including Herring, they argue that the federal government " must make these health and safety standards stronger, mandatory, and enforceable."

They're calling for measures including:

• Priority testing for workers in the processing plants;

• Immediate access to adequate PPE;

• Suspension of all line speed waivers, and a halt to approval of any additional waivers;

• 6-foot physical and social distancing where possible, and plexiglass barriers where distancing cannot be achieved; and,

• Isolation and quarantine of COVID-19 positive workers, with full pay.

Herring says without those measures in place, the current executive order "will prolong the spread of illness and death and imperil its own goal of keeping the plants open" and "may compound the harm done by the federal government’s failure to provide assistance for COVID-19 testing and PPE by attempting to strip from states their ability to determine when or if these processing plants are safe to continue operating in order to protect the health and safety of their own workers."

The states with attorneys general signing the letter include California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin.