Advocates Say Biden OSHA Order Could Lead to Stronger COVID-19 Protections for Meatpackers

Jan. 27, 2021, 3:53 p.m. ·

(Screen capture courtesy of The White House)

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Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 1,400 meatpacking plants across the country have wrestled with COVID-19 outbreaks, including several Nebraska processors. Some local labor advocates are feeling hopeful a recent executive order by President Biden could lead to stronger worker protections for meatpackers and other essential industry employees.

In Nebraska, workers and their families have been pushing for enforceable protections for months, a list including full sick pay, social distancing measures, access to quality PPE and consistent COVID-19 testing for employees. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the first of its safety guidance for facilities last spring, which recommended several of those very policies to help curb the spread of the virus among workers.

Several major companies like Smithfield, Tyson, Cargill and JBS ultimately adopted various COVID-19 measures — including masks for employees, some sick pay, and short term disability — but many advocates criticized those decisions and their rollouts, saying they came only after hundreds had already gotten sick.

Several workers across Nebraska have taken their complaints to OSHA. Some employees filed a federal lawsuit last fall against a central Nebraska meatpacker for its response to the pandemic.

“Our struggle all along is that the previous guidelines were just guidelines. They weren't enforceable,” said Darcy Tromanhauser, who manages Nebraska Appleseed's Immigrants & Communities program.

Tromanhauser says the language of President Biden’s recent executive order signals an intent from the White House to change that. The directive to OSHA doesn’t mention meatpackers directly, but it does order the safety agency to revise COVID-19 guidelines for essential workplaces and “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary”.

The agency will also create a nationwide program for enforcing protections and educating workers on their rights. Officials are being directed to “focus OSHA enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 on violations that put the largest number of workers at serious risk or are contrary to anti-retaliation principles”.

Tromanhauser says that directive, and any other new standards, would apply to Nebraska's Omaha-based OSHA office. The agency has until March 15 to evaluate and implement any changes in federal policy.

“This is really important because it's showing movement forward and creating a focus on worker safety for the people doing essential work during the pandemic,” Tromanhauser explained. “But what it lands on, we won't know for another couple weeks.”

There could be some limitations to what OSHA can require from plants and other employers, including sick pay: federal law does not require workplaces to provide sick leave. Plus, Nebraska is not a "state-plan" OSHA state, meaning the state does not have its own federally approved worker safety plan. Businesses are only subject to federal working standards any other policies would need to be passed into state law.

That's partly why advocates and their allies in the Legislature are continuing to pursue statewide protections that in some cases would extend beyond the pandemic, including creating a long term standard for accruing paid sick time. Both laws were introduced this session by Sen. Tony Vargas of South Omaha, who first attempted to pursue protections last summer. The Legislature narrowly rejected that effort.

“Workers have needed protections urgently for months, so we'll want to keep moving forward at both the state and the federal level until actual protections are in place,” Tromanhauser explained.

“[And] once we get these urgently needed COVID protections in place, ‘back to normal’ isn't the goal, because ‘normal’ had already alarmingly high rates of injury for meat and poultry workers.”