Monday, September 14, 2020

COVID-19 and Its Impact on Meatpacking Workers

The Law, Ethics, & Animals Program (LEAP) hosted Leah Douglas, Brent Newell, Magaly Licolli, and Deborah Berkowitz on September 9, 2020 for a webinar discussion on the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on frontline workers in the meatpacking industry, which has seen some of the worst outbreaks in the country. 

The event, titled “Rampant COVID-19 Infections & AWOL OSHA: Fighting Back Against the Exploitation of America’s Meatpacking Workers,” was the second of LEAP’s 2020–2021 speaker series, “One Health: The Inseparable Fates of Animals, Humans, and the Planet.” The discussion was moderated by Caroline Parker ’22.

WATCH: Video of “Rampant COVID-19 and AWOL OSHA” panel

Douglas spoke about how, since April, she and her colleagues at the Food and Environment Reporting Network have been painstakingly gathering data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in the food system. Her reporting has helped fill in glaring gaps in official statistics, as both meatpacking corporations and public authorities have refused to share comprehensive data on the spread of the virus. Only four states have released comprehensive data, and Douglas argued that even official CDC figures are likely an undercount. For policymakers and advocates looking to protect frontline workers, Douglas argued, just getting a handle on the scope of the problem has proven extraordinarily difficult.

Newell, a senior attorney at Public Justice, began his talk by acknowledging the crucial role grassroots workers’ organizations have played in exposing rampant abuse and exploitation in the corporate-controlled food system, both during the pandemic and long before. “Lawyers serving grassroots groups should be on tap and not on top,” he said, adding that he sees his organization, Public Justice, as “riding shotgun” to local groups. Newell’s talk focused on a complaint he, along with a coalition of worker justice groups, filed with the United States Department of Agriculture in July. The complaint argues that the gross negligence of meatpacking giants JBS and Tyson in preventing COVID-19 outbreaks at their facilities amounts to racial discrimination, as workers of color comprise a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. “This is not just a health and safety situation. This is not just subjecting people to unsafe working conditions,” he said. “This is racial discrimination, and it must stop.”

Licolli, a founder of Venceremos, an Arkansas-based organization that advocates for the rights of poultry workers, emphasized that the current health and safety crisis in meatpacking plants is not an anomaly, but rather an intensification of the meatpacking industry’s longstanding abuse of workers. Many poultry workers, she noted, have developed respiratory problems due to prolonged exposure to chemicals like chlorine and peracetic acid, putting them at much greater risk of dying from the virus. She added that current conditions in meatpacking facilities — including a lack of basic personal protective equipment, poor ventilation and sanitation, and rapid line speeds, which some facilities have even increased during the pandemic — make it almost impossible to socially distance. Licolli also attacked the hypocrisy of meatpacking corporations, which, while telling frontline workers that they were “heroes for feeding America,” were in the midst of exporting record amounts of meat abroad to China.

In the final talk of the event, Berkowitz, who served as the chief of staff of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013, spoke about her former agency’s total failure to enforce basic health and safety standards at meatpacking plants. The agency, she said, has “completely abdicated their responsibility and their mission to protect workers.” Despite receiving complaints from “terrified” workers all across the country, OSHA has rarely initiated on-site inspections at meatpacking plants and has instead merely issued voluntary guidance. Last year, there were ten deaths throughout the meat and poultry industry nationwide, but this year that number is at least twenty times higher in just half the time, Berkowitz said. She also criticized the structure of OSHA, which does not give workers a private right of action to sue to enforce workplace health and safety standards, leading to a dearth of lawyers focused on worker safety. 

LEAP meatpacking panelistsDouglas is an Associate Editor and staff writer at the Food and Environment Reporting Network. She previously worked at the Open Markets Institute, where she was a reporter and policy analyst focused on economic consolidation and monopolization in the food and agriculture industry. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, the Guardian, Washington Monthly, Mother Jones, Fortune, Time, Slate, and elsewhere. In 2020, she won the National Farmers Union Milt Hakel Award for excellence in agricultural reporting and is a member of the 2019-2020 cohort of the New Economies Reporting Project finance solutions fellowship.

Licolli is a co-founder of Venceremos, a worker-based organization in Arkansas with a mission to ensure the human rights of poultry workers. Venceremos is part of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of over 30 worker-based organizations advocating for better wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. During the pandemic, Licolli has advocated for paid leave and hazard pay for poultry workers in Arkansas and around the country.

Newell is the Food Project Senior Attorney at Public Justice, where his work focuses on promoting sustainable alternatives to the industrial agriculture system. He is the lead attorney representing workers filing a complaint with the USDA arguing that meat industry giants Tyson and JBS are engaging in racial discrimination against their employees. Prior to working at Public Justice, he worked as an attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in Oakland.

Berkowitz is the Worker Health and Safety Program director at the National Employment Law Project. She previously served as both chief of staff and senior policy advisor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009­–2015. Prior to that, she spent decades working on health and safety issues for the labor movement at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Food and Allied Service Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Bloomberg BNA, Workers’ Compensation, Quartz, The Hill, the Huffington Post, and more. She is the recipient of the American Public Health Association’s Alice Hamilton Award.

The September 9 event was cosponsored by the Yale Animal Law Society, the Yale Environmental Law Association, the Yale Sustainable Food Program, and the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.

The Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) at Yale Law School is a multidisciplinary program dedicated to developing new strategies to address industrialized animal cruelty and its impacts on the living world, and to drawing attention to the deep questions of conscience and law raised by humanity’s treatment of animals. Among recent and upcoming speakers are Daniel Pauly, Jennifer Jacquet, Tabitha Grace Mallory, and Peter Carstensen. To receive notifications about LEAP events, sign up for LEAP’s newsletter.

By Jack McCordick