Latino lawmakers are urging the Trump administration to investigate working conditions for meat processing workers and issue a temporary emergency safety standard, a day after the president mandated that plants reopen.
President Donald Trump issued an executive order Tuesday requiring plants to stay open or reopen amid concerns about food shortages during the coronavirus crisis. But multiple meat processing facilities across the country have seen the coronavirus ravage their workforces, and Latino members of Congress led by Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair, are concerned that some companies are heaping even more risk on workers already prone to high rates of illness.
“Numerous companies across the meatpacking industry have not taken the necessary precautions they need to protect workers,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the administration. “While some companies were early actors in providing personal protective equipment, the callous inaction of others has reportedly led to multiple deaths and thousands of sick workers, as well as the death of two inspectors from the Department of Agriculture.”
Latinos have been hit hard by the coronavirus, representing a high number of hospitalizations and deaths compared with their share of the overall population, according to early data tracking cases by ethnicity. A disproportionate number of meatpackers are people of color and immigrants — 44 percent are Latino and 25 percent are African American, according to an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Latinos are also the least insured population in the country, according to the Office of Minority Health, making them less likely to seek medical care if infected by the coronavirus.
“The majority of these workers are either Latino workers or some of them undocumented or refugee workers from other countries,” Castro said in an interview. “So these are very vulnerable populations who don’t have a lot of political or economic power often to change their own working conditions.”
Working conditions at meatpacking plants are just part of a long list of concerns about Latino workers in essential services that have Latino lawmakers sounding the alarm. Many have pleaded with the administration to cease deportations as the coronavirus spreads. And Latino leaders have decried the lack of relief for Latino households and undocumented immigrants in the coronavirus packages passed by Congress.
“If the [Defense Production Act] is going to be used to force workers to appear under these circumstances, all executive orders threatening deportation or other removal actions against undocumented workers in these plants must be immediately suspended,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas). “Furthermore, all essential workers and their immediate families should be given immediate green card status.”
Last week, the Hispanic Caucus requested the House Education and Labor Committee open an investigation and hold a hearing on the working conditions for meat processing workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, the Hispanic Caucus called on Trump to not deport any essential workers. “It’s very ironic that on the one hand, the president is trying to do everything he can to get them out of the country, but with an executive order, he’s also requiring these people to stay here and work,” said Castro.
The League of United Latin American Citizens estimates 80 percent of the meat processing workforce is comprised of undocumented workers or refugees.
“The virus doesn’t ask for papers, the virus hits everybody and we need to protect them,” said LULAC president Domingo Garcia. “And by giving [workers] temporary protective status, which President Trump can do by executive order, [he can] ensure that the food continues to flow to our grocery stores.”
The letter, led by Castro, was signed by 19 other Latino lawmakers, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Vela. It was sent to the secretaries for the Departments of Labor, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.
The Hispanic Caucus also called for the administration to issue an emergency temporary standard which would require meatpacking facilities to follow protection guidelines.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a joint guidance with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on precautionary measures like social distancing and staggered break times for meat, pork and poultry plants. But the guidance is just that: an unenforceable recommendation, not a mandate.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the Department of Labor and OSHA clarified that while “it is vitally important” that employers adhere to the guidance, it would intervene if meatpacking companies were sued but found to have made “good faith attempts” to follow the guidelines.
“Where a meat, pork, or poultry processing employer operating pursuant to the President’s invocation of the DPA has demonstrated good faith attempts to comply with the Joint Meat Processing Guidance and is sued for alleged workplace exposures, the Department of Labor will consider a request to participate in that litigation in support of the employer’s compliance program,” reads a joint statement from Solicitor of Labor Kate O’Scannlain and Loren Sweatt of OSHA.
Recent reports have detailed cramped, unsanitary conditions for those working in meat and poultry facilities with little access to protective equipment to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Rates of coronavirus infection around the 150 largest meat packing plants are higher than infection rates in 75 percent of other U.S. counties, a USA Today and Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting analysis found.
“The administration needs to take action to hold the meatpacking industry accountable for its labor abuses,” said Castro.
Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.