President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday using the Defense Production Act to compel American meat processing plants to remain open—or in many cases to reopen—during the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic. The order comes in response to concerns about the nation’s food supply chain following the closure of a number of facilities in the interior of the country due to outbreaks of the virus among workers. As of last week, nearly two dozen packing and processing plants, accounting for a quarter of the U.S.’s pork production and 10 percent of the nation’s beef capacity, faced closure over the past two months. In the order, Trump declared the meat and poultry supply chain “critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”
The initial closures were largely voluntary, rather than state-ordered, in response to pressure from local health officials and unions representing the workers. The companies that make up the production industry—like Tyson Foods, JBS, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and National Beef Packing—have been pushing to reopen, but workers’ health concerns have persisted. Unions representing the workers at the different phases of meat production say thousands of workers have contracted the virus and thousands more have stayed home to self-quarantine because of potential exposure. The cramped working conditions at many of the facilities has made them a tinderbox for the virus and hot spots for its spread. The federal government said it will provide health and operational guidance for the companies and will chip in protective gear for employees.
As part of the mandated return to work, the Trump administration is expected to provide liability cover for the meat production companies. Liability for worker and customer illnesses or deaths will be a significant issue going forward and not just for critical industries, but across the board. The return to work order puts many workers in the meat processing industry in an impossible position: They need their jobs and the paychecks that come with them, so they don’t want the plants to sit idle unnecessarily, but they also don’t want their health and safety to be sacrificed in the name of economic gains. They’re not Navy SEALs after all. They’re workers at the bottom rung of the pay scale just trying to get by. As has been the case throughout the pandemic so far, those bearing the economic brunt of the virus have been the country’s paycheck-to-paycheck class, which is far larger than you’d think. The fervor to reopen—whether it’s safe or not—will compel these workers to put themselves between the virus and people sitting on Zoom calls and ordering deliveries online.
The implications of governors’ decisions to reopen come hell or high water is even more stark when you consider that once virus-related restrictions are lifted and an employer reopens, employees who don’t return for health concerns would not only lose their jobs, they’d lose their right to unemployment benefits currently being provided. In Georgia, that would have a significant impact on the service industry employees who are now being forced back to work. Iowa and Texas are following suit. “If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said last week. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.” Iowa is responsible for a third of the nation’s pork supply. In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has lifted restrictions starting this Friday on retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and malls. Workers that didn’t feel safe returning to their jobs yet would lose their benefits, though the state says it is working on exceptions.