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Frosh urges Trump administration to protect health of U.S. meat, poultry workers amid COVID-19 pandemic

BALTIMORE, MD—Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh on Tuesday led a coalition of 20 attorneys general in calling for President Donald Trump to take immediate action to ensure the health and safety of meat and poultry processing plant employees, who have been deemed essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 28, President Trump signed an Executive Order invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) in an attempt to keep meat and poultry processing plants open amid outbreaks of COVID-19 in these facilities. Over 10,000 cases have been tied to these plants.

“The conditions for workers in meat and poultry processing plants have become much more dangerous during this pandemic,” said Attorney General Frosh. “Thousands of employees have fallen ill, and lives have already been lost. The industry’s failure to protect employees and the Administration’s failure to support testing, provision of personal protective equipment, and enforcement of safety standards will continue to endanger the health and well-being of employees.”

COVID-19 infections among meat and poultry industry workers are so severe that many plants are reporting hundreds of workers testing positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the coalition. Rather than slowing assembly line speeds to enable safer working conditions, plants have sought, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved, new line speed waivers that force employees to work faster and closer to one another.

President Trump’s Executive Order instructs the USDA to ensure processing facilities continue to operate under voluntary guidelines for promoting safe working conditions, but it does not mandate these protective measures or commit to enforcing them. The Trump administration must, the attorneys general contend, make these health and safety standards stronger, mandatory, and enforceable.

Adequate measures must include:

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  • Priority testing for workers in the processing plants;
  • Immediate access to adequate PPE;
  • Suspension of all line speed waivers, and a halt to approval of any additional waivers;
  • 6-foot physical and social distancing where possible, and plexiglass barriers where distancing cannot be achieved; and,
  • Isolation and quarantine of COVID-19 positive workers, with full pay.

Without additional measures to protect these workers, Trump’s Executive Order will prolong the spread of illness and death and imperil its own goal of keeping the plants open. Additionally, the Order may compound the harm done by the federal government’s failure to provide assistance for COVID-19 testing and PPE by attempting to strip from states their ability to determine when or if these processing plants are safe to continue operating in order to protect the health and safety of their own workers.

Joining Attorney General Frosh in signing today’s letter are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

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