July 24, 2020

Warren, Booker Release Information from their Investigation into Giant Meatpackers Exploiting Workers and Consumers during COVID-19

Reuters Reported Yesterday that Processors Continue Massive Exports to China In Responses to Senators, Smithfield, Tyson, JBS USA, Cargill Evade Questions, Send Glorified Press Releases While their Workers Get Sick at Record Rates Responses Underscore Need for Enforceable Safety Standards and Long-Term Reform in our Food System

Statements from meatpacking workers and advocates 

Tyson response | JBS USA response | Cargill response | Smithfield response

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) released new 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 while they failed to protect workers, dramatically increased prices for American consumers while exporting record amounts of meat abroad, and successfully lobbied the President with a false pretext to sign an executive order that gave them cover to continue operating in an unsafe fashion. The companies evaded most of the questions sent by the senators, but their behavior speaks for itself. New data show that meat processing companies continue to export record quantities of meat to China despite warning of shortages. Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants continues to grow to over 36,000, disproportionately affecting workers of color. The companies' claim that they "meet or exceed" CDC safety guidelines, despite meatpacking workers continuing to contract and die from COVID-19 at record rates. This data illustrates the need for enforceable and mandatory health and safety protections for essential workers, real investigation and enforcement by OSHA, and long-term reform of our food system. 

We need an Essential Workers Bill of Rights to ensure workers have the full suite of rights, protections, and benefits they need and deserve - including enforceable health and safety protections through an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). Congress must also pass the senators' Farm System Reform Act to massively reform our broken farm system by cracking down on meatpackers' monopolistic practices and ensuring farm workers and food chain workers have safe workplaces. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear that these giant meatpackers can use their power to exploit their workers for profit. If Smithfield, Tyson, JBS USA, and Cargill were actually interested in standing up for their workers on the line, they would have provided real answers to our serious concerns," said Senator Warren. "If these companies believe they're doing everything required of them to protect workers, yet workers continue getting sick and dying, then it's clear that non-enforceable CDC guidance is not enough - the next coronavirus relief package must include an OSHA ETS to keep workers safe. We also need to massively reform our broken food and farm system to give workers, farmers, and consumer real bargaining power." 

"Giant corporate meatpackers Smithfield, Tyson, JBS USA and Cargill have failed time and time again - both during the pandemic and before it - to uphold basic responsibilities of keeping their workers safe, treating farmers fairly, and being transparent with their customers, and their response to our inquiry indicates a continuation of the same dangerous pattern," said Senator Booker. "These companies clearly cannot be trusted to do what is right for their workers, farmers and customers. It is time to act urgently and legislate critical health and safety protections that will do what these companies are failing to do as well as work to overhaul our broken food system by passing the Farm System Reform Act into law."

Key findings from responses: 

The meat processing companies did not provide straightforward and complete responses to the senators' questions on: the extent of the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities; the quantity of meat produced domestically and exported; the increase in wholesale prices; or the change in prices paid to domestic farmers and ranchers. Their responses - or lack thereof - fail to sufficiently explain why they claimed there were pending domestic shortages only to go on and export record quantities of meat to China, which recent reports indicate they continue to do even as frozen supplies fall. And their failure to provide information on the spread of COVID-19 in their plants hides the impact that their decisions had on frontline workers. 

  • Not one of the companies gave specifics on the number of COVID-19 cases or deaths in their plants. Smithfield stated that "employees should never be reduced to numbers" and provided several abstract descriptions of its fatality rate, such as the number of (their) "employees lost...is measured in the low hundredths of one percent of (their) total workforce", while failing to provide an actual number of cases and fatalities in its plants. JBS USA repeated platitudes about the "more than 10 million people (that) have contracted coronavirus" worldwide while staying silent on the impact of the virus on its own facilities. Tyson described testing "almost 40,000 of (their) team members for COVID-19" and prided itself on "transparency in data" but failed to state how many COVID-19-related cases or deaths it had identified. Cargill provided no information at all on the number of cases or deaths, or on COVID-19 testing.
  • Not one of the companies shared numerical information about their production capacity, making it impossible to assess the validity of the claims they made in March about threats to the US food system. While Tyson claimed production capacity "was significantly reduced for all proteins," they did not provide current or historical production capacity data to support their assertion. Smithfield shared publicly available data for the entire U.S. pork market rather than the company-specific information that the senators requested.
  • Not a single company shared information about prices charged to consumers or paid to farmers. Cargill, Tyson, JBS USA's respective letters do not even include the word "price." Smithfield shared only data for the entire U.S. pork market rather than any company-specific information. This is especially troubling given recent reporting that elevated meat prices have spurred the largest increase in grocery prices for Americans since 2011 and DOJ's recent antitrust probe into meatpackers, including JBS USA, Tyson, and Cargill, for price manipulation.
  • Not one of the companies provided real export data, and their answers failed to sufficiently explain why they claimed there were pending domestic shortages in March only to then go on and export record amounts of meat in April. Only Cargill provided high-level facts about their exports during the relevant period, stating that their "total beef exports and total turkey exports were down in comparison to the same period in 2019," but provided no information about exports relative to domestic sales. JBS USA discussed only its "market share" of quarterly exports rather than answering how much of their production left the country during the period of time for which the Senators requested data. Tyson stated that it "prioritized the U.S. market" but did not deny increased exports, and said that "many of the export loads had been booked and sold weeks before the pandemic affected the U.S." Tyson also claimed that "because export markets do not generally desire the same commodity products as those sold in the U.S. market, exporting does not threaten the American meat supply," but provided no data to support that assertion. JBS USA made a similar assertion. Smithfield shared only data for the entire U.S. pork market rather than any company-specific information. Recent reports show that meat processing companies once again exported record quantities of pork to China in June, despite frozen supplies falling: year over year, Smithfield had the largest increase in absolute terms and increased Chinese exports by 135%, while shipments linked to JBS USA and Tyson increased 878% and 1,771% respectively.

The lack of consistency in the companies' responses about the actions they are taking to protect workers - and the failure of those actions to curb the growing number of COVID-19 cases among their workers -  underscores the need for an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard. Despite all four companies reporting that they have met or exceeded the CDC standards, the case count in meatpacking plants continues to rise. According to CDC data on infections in 23 states through May 31, more than 16,000 meatpacking plant workers have contracted COVID-19, and cases continue to increase, with nearly 90% of infections occurring among workers of color. However, the data  excludes some of the largest meatpacking states, like Texas, Iowa, and North Carolina. Outside reporting suggests the true number of infections is much higher, totaling over 36,000 cases and over 160 deaths among meatpacking workers as of July 21, 2020. This suggests that the companies are either failing to implement or consistently apply those standards, and that the standards themselves are insufficient - particularly when they are frequently qualified by "if feasible" or "if possible."  

  • Meatpackers are not following consistent practices. While there are certain policies that all companies said they follow, like providing PPE, some are providing free testing and others aren't, and some are implementing paid sick leave and contact tracing, while others provided no information. This is consistent with the wide variation of practices in the CDC's recent report, which found that, only 37 percent of the facilities reporting cases offered COVID-19 testing to employees, only 22 percent closed their facilities temporarily, and 21 percent reduced the rate of animal processing.
  • While all four companies said they were "meeting" or "exceeding" CDC standards, the continued increase in COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants suggests voluntary guidelines are not sufficient. Either the companies are failing to consistently implement the CDC-recommended standards at the plant level (as the wide variance in plant-level practices in the CDC's latest report on meatpacking workers documents) or the guidance alone is insufficient to protect workers from a pandemic. Recent reporting of the delays in COVID-19 responses by major meat processing plants further emphasizes the need for documentation, such as plant-specific guidance, policies and implementation data, to support claims of early action. Responses by Tyson and JBS USA acknowledge the existence of such policies. The federal government has done little to monitor companies' implementation of safety measures during the pandemic. The CDC guidelines are not enforceable and are frequently qualified by "if feasible" or "if possible." OSHA has dramatically decreased their investigation and enforcement activity during this pandemic. If these companies are indeed consistently implementing the CDC-recommended guidance, it is further clear that an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard is needed to provide more robust guidance and strengthen worker protections.
  • None of the companies are consistently implementing the CDC's recommendation of 6-foot social distancing on processing lines. The CDC's recent report did not report information on the implementation of social distancing measures in meatpacking facilities either.

o   Neither Cargill nor JBS USA's responses claim to implement social distancing on their processing lines

o   Smithfield said that its plants are not designed for social distancing, and did not indicate it had or would pursue a sustainable solution. Smithfield's CEO - who once described social distancing as "a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops" - seemed to imply that the company is not implementing strong social distancing guidelines for its workers. The company says it is "increasing social distancing wherever possible," but states that "industry facilities are not designed for social distancing; that is an incontrovertible, if not inconvenient, fact..."

o   Tyson claims it is "creating barriers and/or requiring face shields on production lines where social distancing is not possible" which indicates that its plants are not implementing the 6-foot social distancing measure, and Tyson has offered no evidence of social distancing implementation on production lines. This is troubling given that PPE ranks on the low end of the CDC's Hierarchy of Controls, and epidemiologists have stated that barriers are not a substitute for critical social distancing.

  • Companies' claims of collaboration with government agencies contrast with recent reporting showing them pushing back against federal, state, and local health officials. Recent reporting of the delays in COVID-19 responses by major meat processing plants further emphasizes the need for documentation, such as plant-specific guidance, policies and implementation data, to support claims of early action.

o   Smithfield highlighted its collaboration with CDC and OSHA, but it is currently challenging OSHA's inspection authority. The company is fighting in federal court to keep OSHA from obtaining documents relating to employee illnesses in its South Dakota plants, where over 500 workers tested positive. 

o   JBS USA claims to have been "at the forefront of implementing mitigation measures...(and) working proactively with federal, state, and local health agencies," but recent reporting shows it was slow to react at the peak of the outbreak and pushed back on a state-mandated closure following the death of several JBS USA employees. 

o   Tyson claims to have "worked closely and partnered with local health departments to provide data," but reporting shows it "dangerous(ly) delay(ed)" providing needed information to state and local health officials. 

o   Cargill claims to have "host(ed) tours of (their) facilities and briefings on Cargill's efforts for visiting representatives of CDC, OSHA, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, as well as state and local health departments and other officials," but reporting suggests that, rather than collaborating with local health officials, Cargill interfered by appealing to the Nebraska governor's office to intervene following a "considerable outbreak." 

  • The companies did not discuss efforts to add additional shifts to compensate for reduced processing rates as a measure to protect workers and allow for enhanced social distancing, despite complaining about risks to processing capacity. Smithfield argued that reduced processing rates would create supply chain problems, but did not explain whether or to what extent it could or did add additional shifts at its plants. Tyson indicated that social distancing is "not possible" on production lines, but also claims to be "reducing line speeds to decrease the number of (front line workers) in...production lines," without any mention of adding shifts.
  • The companies reported a range of attendance and leave policies but did not consistently answer the senators' questions, particularly those concerning family leave and child care. JBS USA stated that it "removed vulnerable populations from (their) facilities while offering full pay and benefits" and "relaxed attendance policies," but did not answer questions about family leave. Cargill reported instituting "a temporary wage increase, an additional 80 hours of paid sick leave, and a purpose pay program" but did not discuss family leave or child care. Smithfield stated that it paid all employees "when they are absent from work due to COVID-19" and that it was fully compliant with Family and Medical Leave Act Requirements, but did not discuss childcare-related absences. Tyson did not provide important information to a key question asking whether the company has "an attendance policy that penalizes workers for missing work due to illness or missing work due to childcare, or have you reinstated such a policy." Tyson claims it "relaxed (its) attendance policies to allow team members with child or dependent care issues to stay home to address those issues rather than coming to work." Recent reporting, however, shows that on June 3, Tyson reinstated its pre-pandemic attendance policy, meaning employees can be penalized for missing shifts.

Reports from workers on the front lines further highlight the inadequacy of efforts to protect workers in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis that threatens the lives of their workers.  

Statement from Stuart Appelbaum, President, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU):

“Reporting to work should not be a life or death decision for poultry workers. Unfortunately, during this pandemic, poultry companies have been slow to take appropriate action to protect their workers.  Even now, within their plants, people are working too closely to each other, with some workers lacking proper PPE.  Employers continue to create disincentives from taking time off--even when workers feel sick. Poultry workers need slower line speeds to allow for social distancing; they need greater access to free PPE provided by their employer; they deserve essential pay for the essential work they do; and they need paid sick and paid family leave to care for themselves and their families should they fall ill.” 

Statement from Edgar Fields, President of the Southeast Council of the RWDSU:

“The poultry industry has been putting America’s appetite ahead of American lives for far too long in the COVID-19 pandemic, and it needs to stop now. The only way to ensure workers are protected is to ensure they are tested regularly, have proper PPE, and can be socially distanced by 6-feet -- in a poultry plant the only way to accomplish that is to slow down the line speeds. Our members know that their essential work has been feeding America in this crisis, and they are prepared to ensure we continue to do so, but not at the risk of their own lives.”

Joint Statement by Food Chain Workers Alliance, Rural Community Workers Alliance, HEAL Food Alliance, American Friends Service Committee - Iowa, Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, and Forward Latino:

"Tyson and JBS have adopted policies that reject critical Centers for Disease Control guidance to stop the spread of COVID-19 at their processing facilities. This has led to an unacceptable number of workers getting sick and dying. These policies and procedures have a discriminatory impact on the predominantly Black, Latino and Asian workforce and reflect the existence of systematic racial discrimination. These policies that endanger workers are a deliberate choice by these companies to put profit over the lives of workers and their communities. If Tyson and JBS will not prioritize the safety of their Black, Latino, and Asian workers, USDA must enforce our basic civil rights laws. We are a collective of worker-based organizations and allies who have filed an administrative civil rights complaint with the USDA, because Tyson and JBS have received significant sums of public contracts through USDA. However, it is imperative that Congress act to ensure that OSHA does the job it was created to do and issue COVID-19 standards to protect all workers.

Statement by Brent Newell, senior attorney with Public Justice:

"What Senator Warren and Senator Booker propose today will go a long way towards stopping harmful racial discrimination and compelling agribusiness to treat their employees and the communities in which they operate as essential, not sacrificial. It seems like every day that Public Justice hears from workers who fear for their health, and the health of their co-workers and communities, because of megacorporations' failure to protect them from COVID-19. A worker at a Tyson plant said 'Workers in harvesting are still working within feet, if not inches, of each other. Tyson has not accommodated this job to keep workers safe, their best protection so far is the masks and face shields but I don't think that's enough. Workers are still getting sick.' A worker at a JBS plant who contracted COVID-19 said, 'At my plant, we are still faced with working closely to each other on the cutting room floor and the company refuses to provide 6 feet distance between workers. The line speed is also too fast and I have difficulty with breathing and continue to feel nauseous while working at such a pace.'"