Based in part on the urging of Iowa’s top Republican officials, President Donald Trump reportedly will sign an executive order today to mandate meatpacking plants stay open amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Bloomberg first broke the news late Tuesday morning, reporting Trump will invoke the Defense Production Act “to order the companies to stay open as critical infrastructure, and the government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance.”
BREAKING: Trump plans to order meat processing plants to STAY OPEN, declaring them critical infrastructure under Defense Production Act. Order meant to stave off shortage of beef, chicken, eggs, pork. Plant closures could have shut down as much as 80% of capacity, source says.
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) April 28, 2020
Meatpacking plants across the country, including several in Iowa, have closed or scaled back their workforce in recent weeks as employees working shoulder-to-shoulder continue to test positive for COVID-19.
The executive order is likely to also include processing plants supplying beef, chicken, eggs and pork, according to Bloomberg.
Monday, in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence and the Coronavirus Task Force, top Iowa officials “urgently” requested the Defense Production Act be used to keep meatpacking plants open.
“It is critical that plants continue to operate,” the letter, signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, Sens. Joni Ernst, Chuck Grassley and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, states. “Worker safety is paramount, and the packing industry is doing everything it can to ensure it and follow local, state and federal recommendations. We urge you to utilize every authority available to keep plants open, and to re-open closed facilities as it is possible to do so safely.”
Iowa’s pork producers need relief. I’m joining @IAGovernor, @ChuckGrassley, & @IADeptAg in asking for immediate assistance from the admin to support our pork producers, including:
➡️Packing plant operations
➡️Humane euthanasia of hogs
➡️Mental health assistance pic.twitter.com/0EUcBq9klb
— Joni Ernst (@SenJoniErnst) April 27, 2020
One such shuttered plant is Smithfield in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Eight hundred employees there so far have tested positive for the virus.
Nationwide, 13 pork, chicken and beef plants have shut down since the start of the pandemic, with more than 5,000 workers sickened or exposed to the virus, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
“Our country cannot, in the same breath, call meatpacking and food processing workers essential employees and then continue to sacrifice their health and safety and the health and safety of their families,” said Mark Lauritsen, UFCW International vice president for meatpacking, during a recent press conference.
At a tele-town hall Tuesday afternoon with Ernst, South Dakota Sen. John Thune noted the roughly 3,500 employees sent home from the Smithfield plant due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Smithfield’s pork processing plant in Monmouth, Illinois, about 30 miles east of Burlington, also has been shuttered.
“I’m hoping that we can figure out a way to get these plants up and functioning again, making sure that we’re first and foremost taking care of the safety and health of the workers there,” Thune said. “In South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota, we’ve got an awful lot of hog supply that has no where to go. And what ends up happening is they have to euthanize some of these animals, and that’s a really, really bad outcome for our farmers.”
Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo also closed its pork processing plant last week after hundreds of employees tested positive for the virus.
Black Hawk County has the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases in the state at 941. It has the third-highest death toll at 12, behind Linn and Polk counties.
Ernst, in response to a constituent’s question about worker and consumer safety when it comes to reopening meatpacking plants, said the Defense Production Act gives presidents the authority to make demands of private businesses in the event of a national emergency. Trump has declined to use that same authority to require manufacturers make personal protective equipment (PPE) for the nation’s essential workforce.
“The problem that we do see — how do we get the workers to go to work?” Ernst asked. “Even after a plant has been sanitized, if there are workers that will refuse to go back to work, there is still an issue with productivity in those plants.”
Ernst said she spoke with Tyson executives Tuesday morning who assured her they are providing PPE to employees, erecting barriers between them and taking their temperature as they come to work.
On Saturday, as Starting Line observed employees stand in line for a temperature check outside Tyson’s Waterloo plant, no one was enforcing social distancing as workers walked freely around the parking lot and stood in close proximity to each other.
The scene at Tyson in Waterloo today, where employees are lining up for mass testing for COVID-19 after a major outbreak here shut down operations pic.twitter.com/i6eKQPDxuL
— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) April 25, 2020
Earlier this month, Starting Line spoke with workers at meatpacking facilities in Columbus Junction, Osceola and Perry who said they were not given masks and could not implement social distancing guidelines due to their close proximity to other workers.
Late last week, during a press conference with UFCW, an employee at the JBS pork plant in Marshalltown said workers there were separated by plastic dividers on the processing floor and in the cafeteria.
Democratic Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer said the president’s executive order “must be accompanied by stringent, enforceable worker-safety protections, widespread rapid testing and adequate personal protective equipment.”
“We owe it to the essential employees who are literally putting their lives on the line to keep food on our tables,” Finkenauer said, in a statement.
Reynolds, Grassley and 4th District Congressman Steve King took to Twitter Tuesday afternoon to show their support for Trump’s expected order.
— Gov. Kim Reynolds (@IAGovernor) April 28, 2020
Pres @realDonaldTrump is right 2use authority 2 keep open meat processing plants Its critical infrastructure 4 country's food supply chain As saying goes society is 9 meals away from food riots Fed govt shld help w PPE&testing/plants need 2follow CDC&OSHA guidance 2protect wrkers
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) April 28, 2020
#COVID has shut down a huge %age of meat harvesting capacity. Euthanization of market ready hogs has begun b/c we can’t get & keep plants open. @realDonaldTrump made a timely & correct decision to invoke the Defense Production Act. Next, National Guard? https://t.co/YNdNFcP5qD
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) April 28, 2020
By Elizabeth Meyer
Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.