The Regulation of Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities in COVID-19

Abigail Marshall

Senior Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2020

The meat and poultry packing industry has recently fallen victim to the spread of COVID-19. Among fierce backlash over the federal government’s lack of action to protect meat packing facility workers, the CDC and OSHA released interim guidelines. These guidelines are to be followed by employers not only to keep workers safe, but to avoid a shortage of one of America’s most prized food sources: meat and poultry. The meat packing industry, as one of the most heavily-regulated industries in the United States, now faces increased regulation during a global pandemic.

A Surge in COVID-19 Cases in Meat Packing Facilities

According to a recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), 115 meat and poultry processing facilities were reported with confirmed COVID-19 cases in 19 states. Among the nearly 130,000 total employees at these facilities, almost 5,000 confirmed cases were reported. Notably, more than 640 cases have been linked to the Smithfield pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Despite these facilities being an emergent hotspot for the viruses’ spread, in late April 2020, President Trump declared meat processing plants “critical infrastructure”, to discourage the facilities from closing and potentially causing a nationwide meat shortage. Although the President’s declaration is an executive order, there are still federal health and workplace safety guidelines and standards that must be abided by, even more so during these difficult times.

Meat and Poultry Processing Plant Regulators

Within the United States Department of Labor is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), which was created to monitor safe and healthy working conditions by setting and enforcing standards in the workplace. OSHA covers most private sector employers and their workers, including meat and poultry processing workers. For those workplaces that fall within OSHA’s purview, these businesses are subject to certain OSHA regulations, and must meet proscribed standards in order to be OSHA compliant. The standards are established by the OSH Act and include, among others, that employers provide workers with PPE and provide a workplace free from serious hazards. These standards applied long before COVID-19 came to the United States and are now more important than ever.

The Unique Risk for Meat and Poultry Workers

Meat and poultry processing workers are at heightened risk for the spread of the virus as many facilities face crowded and unsanitary working conditions. Labor advocates claim the long-standing working conditions that have existed in some facilities for decades contribute to the problem. These difficult conditions include close working spaces and inadequate access to proper protective equipment. To add to these already difficult conditions, there is the added pressure for meat and poultry packing facilities to remain open during this difficult time due to the potential impact closures could have on the entire meat supply chain. Additionally, following the CDC recommendations to remain six feet apart could be particularly difficult for workplaces such as this as these facilities because they benefit from fast, close-proximity assembly lines. Thus, meat processing facilities face a difficult challenge. If the plants abide by CDC and OSHA recommendations, the processing plants will be forced to cut meat-production, which may ultimately lead to a nationwide meat and food shortage. On the other side is the risk of employee and community safety, which is also of the utmost importance.

New Action by OSHA

On April 26, 2020, the CDC and OSHA released Interim Safety Guidelines in response to the recent outbreak. The guidelines came after some union groups called on OSHA to step in with emergency measures to protect meat and poultry plant workers. Numerous complaints were also filed with OSHA and the Department of Labor citing a failure to take proper precautions to protect workers. When these calls were finally heard in early May 2020, OSHA had at this point only recommended certain voluntary safety measures for meatpacking plant employers. Yet, at the same time, the President was calling on meatpacking employees to continue working for the greater good of the food supply chain and the country.

Changes in the Regulatory Environment

Now, OSHA is faced with a whole new set of responsibilities. Not only does OSHA have to continue safeguarding compliance with workplace safety measures in all other essential places of work in which these laws apply, but OSHA also has to find ways to regulate and enforce the recently released guidelines. Particularly, as the economy slowly reopens, OSHA will likely be flooded by new and emerging workplace issues. In an effort to enforce OSHA laws, OSHA surveyors rely on the ability to vigorously and proactively inspect places of work. In the wake of a pandemic, however, it may be unsafe to do so as “vigorously” as was done before COVID-19. In addition, there are new regulations and guidelines for which OSHA will likely have to devote a great deal of resources now and in the years to come. This sector of the U.S. Department of Labor will be one to closely monitor in the next few months as there will likely be a transformation of the current regulatory scheme, which is already heavily controlled.