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May 18, 2020

Iowa ARA VP, Kay Pence – Meat processing: Essential Workers should not be treated as disposable widgets – Letter to the Editor

Last week The NSP reported “the unthinkable: Mass killing of perfectly healthy livestock on a scale never seen in the country.”

I was glad to see workers finally mentioned on page 4. I was beginning to fear disposal of euthanized hogs was the only concern. Slaughterhouse workers have some of the most dangerous workplaces in the country. Workers suffer repetitive stress injuries from all-day cutting, often in near freezing temperatures, with few breaks and a slaughter line that moves dangerously fast. Many injuries go unreported due to lack of paid sick leave, fear of losing jobs, language barriers, deportation fears, financial pressures and employer efforts to keep workers’ compensation claims low.

It is not surprising the same pressures keep sick people at work. The Trump Administration’s 2018 overhaul of USDA rules for meat inspection at pork processing plants didn’t help. Under the new system, plant employees would inspect pork rather than USDA inspectors, and the plant would be exempt from the federal maximum line speed of over 1,000 hogs per hour. The obvious goal of the change was to increase packing industry profits at the expense of workers and food safety.

For decades, food safety experts have warned that the ways we raise and kill animals pose serious risks to our health. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many of the problems into focus.

A group of employees at a Smithfield plants recently sued, claiming the company was not doing enough to keep workers and the surrounding community safe. A federal judge rejected the case, saying OSHA and the USDA had jurisdiction, not the courts.

The president responded by classifying meat plants as critical infrastructure to force them to stay open. Sen. Mitch McConnell pledged to include employer immunity in the next relief package to protect employers from workers or consumers lawsuits. Unless those workplaces can keep workers and products safe, production will not return to the pre-pandemic capacity, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Essential workers should not be treated as disposable widgets. Seeing the outbreak of COVID-19 at the White House this weekend, many realize testing alone is not enough. A better boost to employee safety and consumer confidence would be to make the safety guidelines for critical workers and businesses enforceable and have leaders at all levels model safe behavior.

Iowa Alliance for Retired Americans Vice President, Kay Pence

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This Letter to the editor was originally published in The North Scott Press on May 13, 2020.

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