Republican officials begged Donald Trump to use his authority to keep plants open during a health crisis.
Donald Trump signed an executive order to define meat processing as critical infrastructure after two of the largest pork processing plants in the country suspended operations due to the coronavirus crisis, the Associated Press reported Tuesday night.
Trump will use the powers of the Defense Production Act to force production plants to remain open, despite the safety risks to meatpacking plant workers, to ensure there is chicken, pork, and other meats at grocery stores during the crisis.
When speaking to reporters earlier on Tuesday about the executive order, Trump did not say what, if any, additional protections would be offered to workers.
Unions immediately slammed the decision, saying it's prioritizing meat over people's lives.
"People should never be expected to put their lives at risk by going to work," Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told Bloomberg.
A Smithfield Foods suspended work at a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, earlier in April after more than 400 workers had fallen ill, in part because workers were not able to practice proper measures to keep themselves safe.
Nebraska also faced major coronavirus outbreaks in two towns with large meatpacking facilities during April.
The Republican governors of both states have refused to issue stay-at-home orders, meaning workers remain at higher risk in their communities no matter what safety precautions are taken at the plants.
"If we allowed everyone to go about their business as usual, most everyone would come in contact with the virus," Aline M. Holmes, director of the Clinical Systems Project at Rutgers University School of Nursing told Healthline in March about the need for stay-at-home orders. "Of those, about 80 percent would get pretty sick, and of those, about 20 percent will need to be hospitalized."
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 250,000 meatpacking workers, said on Tuesday that 22 meatpacking plants across the nation have closed in the past two months while an estimated 6,500 meatpacking and food processing workers have tested positive for coronavirus and 20 have died.
Marc Perrone, the union's president, called on the administration to "compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected."
He also called on federal inspectors to monitor plants to ensure they are adhering to the safety guidelines.
"The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak," Perrone said in his statement.
"There is no social distance," a former worker at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in South Dakota that suspended operations told the Washington Post. "Many people are sick. Not only in the plant — in the whole city."
Rather than protecting workers, Trump's executive order protects the corporations running the meatpacking plants, giving them additional liability protections in case any workers become infected with coronavirus as a result of being forced back to work.
Trump made the decision to force the plants to open after Republican officials pleaded with him to do so.
South Dakota GOP Sen. Mike Rounds had written a letter to Trump asking him to force meatpacking plants to stay open in order to prevent a meat shortage, the AP reported. Republican officials in Iowa wrote to the Trump administration on Monday asking for his assistance to help pork producers in the state by forcing plants to remain open.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.