Bidenâs much-anticipated workplace safety rule excludes most workersâand some in the labor movement are not happy.
Until she got her first Pfizer shot on JulyÂ 16, Cindy Cervantes toiled in the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma for most of the pandemic without aÂ vaccineâworking unprotected in an industry devastated by Covid-19Â illnesses andÂ deaths.
âIn one day, at leastÂ 300Â people were goneâ from the plant, sick from Covid, Cervantes says. Still,Â âSeaboard wanted aÂ certain number of hogs out. They kept pushing people, the chain was going even faster. People were getting injured, and we were losing even more people.â Six of her coworkers have died from Covid-19, and hundreds have gotten sick, sheÂ says.
Ravaged by the pandemic, the roughlyÂ 500,000Â U.S. workers in meatpacking, meat processing and poultry are not getting much help from the industry or the government. In aÂ sector described asÂ âessentialâ during the pandemic, at leastÂ 50,000Â have been infected and more thanÂ 250Â have died, according to Investigate Midwest, aÂ nonprofit news outlet. Yet amid this grim toll, the North American Meat InstituteÂ lobbiedÂ successfully to exclude meatpacking and poultry workers from new Covid-19Â worker safety rules enacted thisÂ June.
Even as vaccine availability in the United States steadily expands, workers still face pandemic peril on the job, from breakthrough cases of Covid-19, as well as low vaccination rates in many areas due to a combination of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and serious access barriers to immigrants who fear deportation. Workers and advocates are sounding the alarm that President Biden has dropped the ball on pandemic-era worker protections, violating one of the first promises of his presidency. This warning has particular salience after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that some people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas where there are severe outbreaks, due to the spread of the Delta variant.
On his second day in office, Biden signed anÂ executive orderÂ promising to enact new emergency safety rulesÂ âif such standards are determined to be necessaryâ by MarchÂ 15Â to protect millions ofÂ “essentialâ workers like Cervantes. The goal was straightforward: to give workers enforceable protections on the job, such as mandating that companies provide physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). But the deadline came and went, with no new rule. Then, on JuneÂ 10, afterÂ heavy lobbyingÂ by many industry groupsâIncluding the American Hospital Association, the National Retail Federation, the North American Meat Institute and the National Grocers AssociationâBiden issued aÂ narrow rule covering only health careÂ workers.
This is despite the fact that other industries have been devastated by the pandemic.Â âAlmost all my coworkers have gotten it,â Cervantes says of the virus, noting that many of them were out sick for months, and some returned to work with lingering Covid-19Â symptoms. Yet, she says,Â âa lot of workers IÂ work with have not gotten the vaccinationâ for aÂ host of reasons. Some areÂ âskeptical,â andÂ âthink itâs got aÂ chip in it or that itâs not going toÂ work.âÂ
Itâs not hard to get aÂ vaccine at the plant, Cervantes says. But in an industry that relies heavily on immigrants, Latinx and often undocumented workers, there are many barriers to vaccination, researchers note. According to theÂ Kaiser Family Foundation,Â âLarge shares of Hispanic adultsâparticularly those with lower incomes, the uninsured, and those who are potentially undocumentedâexpress concerns that reflect access-related barriers to vaccination.â Oklahoma, home to the Seaboard plant where Cervantes works, is among the nationâs most dangerous Covid-19Â states, with justÂ 40% of the population fully vaccinated, andÂ âhigh transmission rates,âÂ accordingÂ to theÂ CDC.
In an email response to questions, Seaboard communications director David Eaheart said the companyÂ âproactivelyâ notifies workers of any Covid-19Â cases in the plant, and has taken numerous precautions based on CDC and state health guidance, including paid leave for infected workers, and plexiglass shields atÂ âselect lineÂ workstations.âÂ
Eaheart acknowledged that in MayÂ 2020, testing at the plant identifiedÂ 440Â employees withÂ âactive cases of Covid-19,â the plantâsÂ âhighest week of reported active cases. All these employees self-isolated at home and were required to follow CDC guidance before being allowed to return to work.â During that week, he said,Â âoverall production was scaled back in the processing plant and fewer animals were processed and products produced.â More thanÂ 1000Â workers at the plant have tested positive, and six have died, EaheartÂ confirmed.Â
Since MarchÂ 15, when Bidenâs promised Covid-19Â workplace safety protections were supposed to take effect, more thanÂ 15,000Â working-age adults have died from the pandemic in the United States, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH).Â âEvery one of those individuals had aÂ family that was also at risk of Covid,â said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, in aÂ JuneÂ 9Â press release anticipating Bidenâs rule.Â âReleasing an emergency standard three months late and just for health care workers is too little, tooÂ late.â
The original rule drafted by the Department of Labor did cover all workers, as Bloomberg Law first reportedâbut then the infectious disease standard met the buzz saw of politics and industry pressure, and the White House opted to cover health care workers only.
As the Department of Laborâs draft standard stated,Â âFor the first time in itsÂ 50-year history, OSHA faces aÂ new hazard so grave that it has killed more than half aÂ million people in the United States in barely over aÂ year, and sickened millions more. OSHA has determined that employee exposure to this new hazard, SARS-CoV2Â (the virus that causes Covid-19) presents aÂ grave danger in every shared workplace in the UnitedÂ States.âÂ
Citing rising vaccination ratesâ60% of U.S. adults areÂ fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, though justÂ 49% of the population overallâSecretary of Labor Marty WalshÂ saidÂ the new rules focusing on healthcare workersÂ âprovide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus.â Neither the White House nor the Department of Labor provided any explanation for why other workers in high-exposure jobs wereÂ excluded.
âThatâs kind of ridiculous,â says Louisiana Walmart worker Peter Naughton.Â âThey should cover retail workers as well. We come into contact with people who may have the virus without knowingÂ it.â
In Louisiana, where new Covid-19Â cases areÂ doubleÂ the national infection rate and vaccinations lag far behind, Naughton,Â 45, toils in fear every day at aÂ Walmart in Baton Rouge. He got vaccinated in May, but in his job helping customers navigate self-checkout kiosks, Naughton says,Â âI come into contact with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people aÂ week.â Naughton, who lives in Baton Rouge with his parents to make ends meet, says that despite the recent uptick in Covid-19Â cases, and the spread of the extra-dangerous Delta variant, there are minimal safety precautions, andÂ âWalmart is acting like the pandemic isÂ over.â
While the vaccines vastly reduce risk of death or serious illness, infections andÂ âbreakthrough casesâ are still infecting vaccinated people. And the CDCâs befuddlingÂ guidanceÂ making masks voluntary for those who are vaccinated, on the honor system, hasnât helped. Furthermore, the CDCÂ explains,Â âno vaccines areÂ 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be aÂ small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die fromÂ Covid-19.â
For Naughton and millions of otherÂ âessential workers,â laboring in the pandemic has been aÂ mix of fear, insult and injury. Even when Covid-19Â was at its most deadly and virulent, basic safety measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning wereÂ ânever enforcedâ at Walmart, says Naughton.Â âThey never gave us any PPE, just glass cleaner, which doesnât protect us. Customers could come in without masks and nothing would be said to them. IÂ complained about it and the manager said,Â âDonât worry about it, let the customers do what theyÂ want.ââ
Several of Naughtonâs coworkers got infected and ill from Covid-19, butÂ âmanagement never said aÂ word to any of us,â he says.Â âMost of them IÂ came into close contact with. That kind of scared me. âŚ We all should have known about it.â Naughton says he filed aÂ complaint in NovemberÂ 2020Â requesting OSHA to inspect the Baton Rouge Walmart, butÂ âI never heard back, nothing everÂ happened.â
To top it off, when Naughton received the vaccine in May, he was hit by aÂ 102.4Â degree feverâbut he had to work anyway, because Walmart employees canÂ âlose our jobâ after five absences for any reason. Nobody at Walmart took his temperature or inquired about his health, heÂ says.
Through email, Tyler Thomason, Walmartâs senior manager of global communications, insisted toÂ In These Times,Â âWe encourage our associates to get vaccinated. We offer the vaccine at no cost to associatesâŚ We continue to request that associates and customers wear face coverings unless they are vaccinated. Any information on confirmed, positive COVID-19Â cases would come from the local healthÂ authority.â
Unions Sue to Protect More Workers
Naughton isnât the only person disappointed by Bidenâs exclusion of most workers from this emergency pandemic protection. Unions have pushed for the protection since the pandemic began ravaging the United States in March 2020. First, they encountered staunch resistance from the Trump administration; now, while pledging expansive worker protections, the Biden administration has delayed and diminished them.
On June 10, as the Biden administration announced the narrow new rule leaving out millions of workers, advocates expressed disappointment and frustration.
Bidenâs decision to cover only health care workersÂ ârepresents aÂ broken promise to the millions of American workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants who have gotten sick and died on the frontlines of this pandemic,âÂ statedÂ United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union International President Marc Perrone the day the new rule wasÂ announced.Â
That day, theÂ AFL-CIOÂ added,Â âwe are deeply concerned that the [standard] will not cover workers in other industries, including those in meatpacking, grocery, transportation and corrections, who have suffered high rates of Covid-19Â infections and death. Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19Â exposures andÂ infections.â
On JuneÂ 24, the AFL-CIO and UFCW filed aÂ petition in federal court demanding that all workers be covered by the emergency standard, which, the petition says, currentlyÂ âfails to protect employees outside the healthcare industry who face aÂ similar grave danger from occupational exposure toÂ Covid-19.â
Another champion of the emergency standard, Rep. Bobby Scott (DVa.), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, also expressed frustration when Biden released the narrow new rule, calling the diminished standardÂ âtoo little, too late for countless workers and families across the country,â including workers throughout the food industry and homeless shelters. Rep. Scott added:Â âI am disappointed by both the timing and the scope of this workplace safety standard.â The rule, Scott said,Â âis long past due, and it provides no meaningful protection to many workers who remain at high risk of serious illness fromÂ Covid-19.â
Bidenâs decision to exclude meatpackers, grocery and farm workers, retail and warehouse laborers and others means especially high risks for workers of color, Rep. Scott noted.Â âWith vaccination rates for Black and Brown people lagging far behind the overall population, the lack of aÂ comprehensive workplace safety standard and the rapid reopening of the economy is aÂ dangerous combination,â heÂ said.
Much of thisÂ âessentialâ workforce of people of color, immigrants and low-income white people, toils in dangerous farm labor and food processing plants where Covid-19Â has spread like wildfire while vaccination rates remain low.Â âWorkers in this industry have aÂ very low vaccination rate,â as low asÂ 37% in some states, says Martin Rosas, president of UFCW LocalÂ 2Â representing meatpacking and food processing workers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.Â âI donât know who in their right mind would think weâve passed over that bridge and think all workers are safe now.â Rosas adds,Â âThe federal government has failed to protect meatpacking workersâ by leaving them out of the final emergency standard.Â âIâm extremely disappointed in the BidenÂ administration.â
Both the Department of Labor and the White House declined multiple interview requests, but aÂ Department of Labor spokesperson emailed aÂ statement insisting that the health-care-workers-only ruleÂ âclosely follows the CDCâs guidance for health care workers and the science, which tells us that those who come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for Covid-19, are most atÂ risk.â
The Department of Labor spokesperson stressed that the agencyâs existing (yet unenforceable)Â âguidanceâ and theÂ âgeneral duty clauseâ protect other workers adequately, particularly inÂ âindustries noted for prolonged close-contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood processing, and grocery and high-volume retail.â But in its own draft standard, the Department of Labor stated the opposite:Â âexisting standards, regulations, and the OSH Actâs General Duty Clause are wholly inadequate to address the Covid-19Â hazard.â In its original draft, the agency insisted,Â âa Covid-19Â ETS [emergency temporary standard] is necessary to address theseÂ inadequacies.â
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, National COSHâs co-executive director, says President BidenÂ âis responsibleâ for theÂ 15,000Â workers who have died from Covid-19Â since Bidenâs MarchÂ 15Â deadline to enact the emergency standard. Biden, she notes,Â âpromised to protect workers in his campaign and on his first day in office, but he neglected them. But workersâ safety needs arenât over, and weâll be continuing to demand accountability from theÂ administration.â
This post originally appeared at In These Times on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Christopher Cook is an award-winning investigative reporter who also writes for Harperâs, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.