We are in the middle of a pandemic. Obviously. How will that work in closely confined spaces? Not well. Tyson Foods published a warning this last weekend, stating the nation’s food supply was at risk due to infections. The Trump Administration responded within days by issuing an order under the Defense Production Act that all meat plants remain open. Ok, that’s nice. But, if the workers call in sick, then what? Some workers have already indicated they are afraid to return to work unless Tyson institutes some protections. Many workers have already tested positive for the COVID-19. See CNN news report.
It is ironic that the ICE conducted major raids on meat packing plants last Summer apprehending hundreds of undocumented workers.
One of the challenges with the coronavirus is what protections can the worker ask for in response to a general fear of the virus? The Tyson workers have a more specific concern, because many workers have actually tested positive. A couple dozen workers have died. But, absent actual tests, what can a worker ask for? Not much. OSHA requires employers to provide a safe working environment in regard to known dangers. But, if no one has tested positive, it will be hard to argue in court that the virus presents a known danger in the work place.
The Tyson situation is different. The worker can and should demand some level of protection. The question will be how much protection can they expect OSHA to enforce? On Sunday, the Center for Disease Control and OSHA issued guidelines for meat packing plants to protect workers. See those CDC guidelines here. But, the guidelines are just that, guidelines. Tyson Foods can honor those guidelines, or not. Workers can make demands, but they can then be terminated. And, the larger question is do we want COVID-19 in our food supply? I think most consumers would prefer sick workers and possibly sick workers not come to work. No one wants to buy bacon that was packed at an infected plant.
One worker asks what will the administration do if no one comes to work? Surely, the administration will get them protective gear or whatever they need. If not, as I have advised other workers when the law does not help, form a union. Unions started at a time when employers were not responsive to safety concerns. We may be re-visiting that time, soon.