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  • Writer's pictureMichael McAuliff

Warren, Booker Rip OSHA Over 'Disgraceful' Meatpacking COVID Failures

Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have simply had it with OSHA's response during the COVID-19 pandemic -- particularly confronting the catastrophic spread in the meatpacking industry.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

The senators, who released an investigation of the poor pandemic response in the meatpacking industry over the summer, have repeatedly pressed the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ramp up enforcement as infection rates skyrocketed in meatpacking.

The pair fired off an exasperated letter to OSHA head Loren Sweatt in September repeating a demand that the agency issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to require enforceable worker protections. The agency answered that emergency rules were not needed.

Since then, the tally of coronavirus-sickened meat workers has climbed to at least 50,000, with 260 deaths. Nearly 9,000 of those infections and 54 deaths came after the agency said no emergency measures were needed.

In a new letter sent to Sweatt Monday, the senators ask in extremely blunt terms if Sweatt will finally act.

“We would like to know whether you plan to take any action while you are still in office to protect workers and communities during this surge in the pandemic, or if you plan to end your tenure by continuing to fail the workers you are sworn to protect," the two write.

An OSHA spokesperson who handles COVID issues did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“In the absence of protections and enforcement, workers’ health and safety are left to the whims of employers who know there isn’t a cop on the beat, as is evidenced by repeated outbreaks at the same large meat-processing plants operated by the same industry giants," Booker and Warren wrote, pointing plants where there are double outbreaks, a case where supervisors allegedly ran betting pools for when workers would get sick, and companies that have multi-state outbreaks.

OSHA has fined just two meatpacking plants where a dozen people died and nearly 1,500 got sick, for a total of $29,000.

"Throughout the industry, meat and poultry workers continue to risk their health to protect their jobs, because OSHA has failed to fulfill its mission and assure their safety," Booker and Warren wrote.

As staggering as the toll has been on workers directly, the senators also point to research that shows the failure to control the virus in meatpacking plants has essentially turned them into super spreader factories for the broader community.

While meatpacking workers account for only a small percentage of the nation's workforce -- about 500,000 jobs -- a study that came out last month by researchers at Columbia University and the University of Chicago found that it was linked to around 300,000 infections and 5,000 deaths in the broader community, as of late July.

"Our results indicate a strong positive relationship between livestock-processing plants and local community transmission of COVID-19, suggesting that these plants may act as transmission vectors into the surrounding population and accelerate the spread of the virus," the authors wrote.

Warren and others on both sides of Capitol Hill have tried to push legislation to require OSHA to issue emergency rules, but GOP leaders and the administration have blocked such lawmaking.

Absent a requirement, OSHA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have actually gone the opposite direction, allowing meatpacking plants to speed up their production lines, which forces workers to remain closer together.

At the same time, whistleblower complaints to OSHA -- not just from meat plants, but broadly -- surged by 30% over the first four months of the pandemic, according to a Department of Labor Inspector General report, driving the time it takes to close investigations up to 279 days on average.

"It has been clear since the onset of this pandemic that OSHA must promulgate an [Emergency Temporary Standard] to guarantee enforceable health and safety protections for workers specific to this pandemic," Warren and Booker wrote. "The agency’s failure to take action under your watch is disgraceful, and workers, their families, and their communities deserve better."


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