December 22, 2020

Senators Warren and Booker to OSHA: Your Persistent Failure to Protect Workers at Meatpacking Facilities From Escalating, Deadly COVID-19 Outbreaks is Disgraceful

A new study finds that meatpacking facilities are associated with community spread of COVID-19, leading to hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths in the U.S.

OSHA has refused to establish emergency workplace safety standards

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sent a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) asking why the agency is still failing to take any action to protect meatpacking workers during a raging global health pandemic in which meatpacking plants are serving as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) hotspots that are harming their employees and surrounding communities, the majority of which are immigrant communities and communities of color. Their letter follows the recent release of a study that explicitly identified meatpacking facilities "as (COVID-19) transmission vectors into the surrounding population (that) accelerate the spread of the virus" and are associated with hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths. 

The senators sent a letter to OSHA in September 2020 criticizing the agency's delayed and ineffective response to COVID-19 outbreaks occurring at meatpacking facilities across the U.S. that have sickened and killed many workers. In response, OSHA wrongly asserted that enforceable, emergency health and safety standards are "not necessary at this time." Since the September 2020 letter to OSHA, an additional 8,974 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and 54 workers have died of COVID-19 across another 69 meatpacking plants. 

"Given these ongoing concerns, 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," wrote the lawmakers.

Amid OSHA's continued refusal to engage in substantive enforcement of worker protections or to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring enforceable worker safety protections specific to the pandemic, COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants have worsened. Rather than taking significant action to protect worker safety in meatpacking facilities, DOL has instead reduced transparency about employers violations of workers' rights. In the absence of standards 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.

"Your persistent failure to act continues to endanger these workers and the communities where they live, work, and play. It has been clear since the onset of this pandemic that OSHA must promulgate an ETS to guarantee enforceable health and safety protections for workers specific to this pandemic. The agency's failure to take action under your watch is disgraceful, and workers, their families, and their communities deserve better," the senators concluded.

Senators Warren and Booker have been working to hold the meatpacking industry accountable for workers' rights and safety violations throughout the pandemic:

  • In May 2020, Senator Warren requested the Department of Labor Inspector General (IG) open an investigation into OSHA's handling of inspections and citations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the DOL's failure to issue an OSHA ETS, which the IG's office agreed to consider in June.
  • In July 2020, Senators Warren and Booker released information from their investigation into whether Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods used the COVID-19 pandemic -- and warning of meat shortages -- as cover to increase prices for American consumers while exporting record amounts of meat abroad, and successfully lobby the President with a false pretext to sign an executive order that gave them cover to continue operating in an unsafe fashion that endangered workers, many of whom are people of color.
  • Since releasing their July 2020 findings, Senator Warren sharply criticized OSHA on September 10 for failing to hold Smithfield Foods and other meatpacking companies accountable for putting thousands of lives at risk, sending a message to the industry that OSHA is working for big business, not workers.
  • On September 22, Senators Warren and Booker pressed OSHA regarding the agency's delayed and feckless response to the dozens of reports of COVID-19 outbreaks affecting thousands of workers in hundreds of meatpacking facilities across the country.
  • In October 2020, Senators Warren and Booker released the Department of Labor's inadequate, half-page response to their inquiry about why OSHA failed to take quick and sufficient actions to enforce workplace safety laws and protect workers in meatpacking plants.
  • In April 2020, Senator Warren introduced the Essential Workers Bill of Rights to ensure workers have the full suite of rights, protections, and benefits they need and deserve during the COVID-19 pandemic, including enforceable health and safety protections through an OSHA ETS.