Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer did not take kindly to recent remarks aimed at meatpacking plant employees, using Twitter Thursday to criticize the Health and Human Services secretary for blaming outbreaks of COVID-19 on workers’ “home and social” conditions.
From her personal Twitter account, Finkenauer said the comments made by Secretary Alex Azar “are gross and wrong.”
“If he ever wants to get off his high horse, I’ll gladly introduce him to the frontline workers who put food on his table,” she continued. “Until then, he can shut his mouth about my constituents’ ‘home and social’ lives.”
These comments from @SecAzar are just the latest example of this administration refusing to take the health and safety of our essential workers seriously. If we’re going to force these workers back on the job, we’ve got to give them the resources to do it safely.
— Abby Finkenauer (@Abby4Iowa) May 7, 2020
Finkenauer’s Eastern Iowa district has been hit especially hard by outbreaks of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants in Waterloo and Tama. (Statewide, four meat packing facilities meet the definition of an outbreak — 10% or more of employees testing positive.)
Azar’s comments were made April 28 during a bipartisan call with lawmakers, according to Politico.
Politico reports that Azar pointed to the living conditions and social habits of some factory workers, such as living with extended family and friends, as a top reason why the disease was rapidly spreading, rather than focus on employees’ lack of protective equipment and the close quarters where they work.
During Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Tuesday press conference — the first that facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks were confirmed by the state — Reynolds also shied away from criticizing company leaders for not being proactive. Workers have told Starting Line and numerous other outlets of instances when social distancing was not enforced at work and they were not provided proper PPE.
“Sometimes this is household spread, sometimes it’s community spread, sometimes it’s congregate spreading of the virus and the facilities,” Reynolds said. “We’ve been in constant communication with the facilities to talk about the procedures they’re putting in place to keep their employees safe.”
In South Dakota, where more than 700 employees at Smithfield Foods have tested positive for COVID-19, Gov. Kristi Noem told Fox News, “We believe that 99% of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility. It was more at home and spreading some of the virus. Because a lot of these folks that work at this plant live in the same community, same building, sometimes in the same apartment.”
Nebraska’s governor Pete Ricketts has used similar language, calling the Smithfield outbreak in Crete a “community issue,” according to the Omaha World-Herald.
Republican lawmakers and the Trump Administration have pushed for the reopening of meat packing and food processing facilities to try and limit disruption to the nation’s food supply. On April 28 President Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat packing plants and other food processing facilities open amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But workers and their advocates remain concerned about employees’ well-being as they perform high-risk and dangerous jobs.
“America’s meatpacking workers are putting their lives on the line every day to make sure our families have the food they need during this pandemic,” said Ademola Oyefeso, UFCW International vice president, in a statement. “Secretary Azar is cowardly pointing the finger at sick workers and peddling the same thinly-veiled racism we have heard from far too many in positions of power.”
Iowa’s Democratic delegation in Congress has called on President Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act — as he did with the meat packing executive order — so personal protective equipment for frontline workers can be manufactured and distributed quickly.
“We want to help ensure that any action taken to re-open food processing plants does not lead to dozens or hundreds of new cases, as we’ve seen in Waterloo,” Finkenauer said. “We can put politics aside and work together to secure the food supply, and ensure Iowans are protected as they return to work at meat processing plants.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
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