Trump official blames workers for getting sick as they're forced to keep working

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HHS Secretary Alex Azar blamed workers at meatpacking plants for virus transmission the CDC says results from conditions at the plants.

Alex Azar, Donald Trump's secretary of Health and Human Services, blamed workers' lifestyle for coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the nation, Politico reported on Thursday.

On a call with members of Congress in late April, Azar blamed the "home and social" conditions of workers for the spread of the virus, three people on the call told Politico, rather than the conditions in the plants.

Meanwhile, last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that explicitly blames working conditions at meatpacking plants for transmission of the virus.

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The CDC found "structural and operational practices that made it difficult to maintain a 6-foot (2-meter) distance while working, especially on production lines, and in nonproduction settings during breaks and while entering and exiting facilities."

In addition, the type of work performed at these plants "made adherence to face covering recommendations difficult," and some meatpacking plants had "difficulty adhering to the heightened cleaning and disinfection guidance recommended for all worksites to reduce" coronavirus transmission.

Workers are being forced to go back to meatpacking plants after Trump issued an executive order on April 28, the same day as Azar's call with members of Congress, declaring meat processing critical infrastructure during the crisis. Trump issued the order despite the fact that many meatpacking plants have become coronavirus hot spots.

Republican officials in many states are threatening to block unemployment insurance for workers who do not return to reopened businesses, even if they don't because they fear contracting the virus.

"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 said in late April. "Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money."

A couple of weeks after Reynolds made this statement, 58% of workers at a Tyson Foods pork plant in Iowa tested positive for coronavirus.

In April, a plant in South Dakota suspended operations after more than 400 workers became sick with the new coronavirus.

The Trump administration's desire to blame workers and let companies off the hook aligns with the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said that the Senate would not pass any additional coronavirus relief packages unless they included measures preventing workers from suing their employers if they got sick.

"Well, let me make it perfectly clear that the Senate is not interested in passing a bill that does not have liability protection," McConnell said on April 28, adding, "we have a red line on liability. It won't pass the Senate without it."

McConnell went even further the next day, telling Fox News that lawsuits against businesses would be a "second pandemic."

Unions are demanding more workplace safety guidelines as plants and stores reopen.

The federal government should "compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment" and coronavirus testing; enforce CDC guidelines on measures such as physical distancing; and ensure paid sick leave for workers who fall ill, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said after Trump demanded meatpacking plants reopen.

Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH) told Politico she was disturbed by Azar's comments blaming the workers' living conditions for transmission of the coronavirus.

"He was essentially turning it around, blaming the victim and implying that their lifestyle was the problem," Kuster said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.