WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — When President Donald Trump signed an executive order mandating meat processing plants across the country to stay open, it got mixed views from lawmakers and labor unions.
With the national meat supply under threat, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is applauding the president’s decision to order meat processing plants across the country to stay open during the pandemic.
“In cold storage, there’s about two weeks’ supply. Beyond that, there’s a problem,” Grassley said. “The plants aren’t operating just because everybody’s sick. They’re not operating because people don’t want to come to work because they think they might get the virus.”
Last week, Tyson Food’s pork plant in Iowa became one of the largest operations to close after workers expressed safety concerns.
Workers across the country says conditions on assembly lines can make it nearly impossible to social distance.
To help ease fears, the Trump administration says more protective gear is on the way to meat processing plants.
“The only way you build that confidence is showing them that it’s going to be a safer place to work,” Grassley said.
But with thousands of plant workers already hospitalized by the virus and nearly two dozen dead, labor unions say confidence won’t return until there’s daily testing available and full paid leave for infected employees.
“This has to be done in a way that does not threaten peoples lives,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said.
Stabenow says while some companies are promising to step up, she’s concerned there isn’t enough federal oversight to ensure workers are protected.
“There needs to be federal oversight to make sure that in every plant, the right things are being done,” Stabenow said. “There’s a wrong way and right way to do this. I want to make sure we’re doing this the right way.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says the president’s order ignores the health and safety realities of this pandemic.
“If the Trump administration would make a national commitment to serious testing and worker protection, instead of a mindless mandate, we could bring this valuable sector of our economy back to life,” Durbin said.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesperson provided this statement to Nexstar on Wednesday:
“USDA is directing meat and poultry processing plants to operate in accordance with the CDC/OSHA Guidance for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers to facilitate ongoing operations, while mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19. Accordingly, establishments will provide written documentation of mitigation plans for review by the USDA-led federal leadership team, which consists of representatives from USDA, DOL and CDC. The USDA-led federal leadership team will swiftly review documentation provided and work in consultation with the state and local authorities to resume and/or ensure continuity of operations at these critical facilities.”
Two senators, Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., called on the Federal Trade Commission to open an antitrust investigation into the meatpacking industry. They argue the industry is being dominated by just a handful of massive firms and the current set up in itself is a threat to the nations food supply.