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Labor Reps Worry About Meatpackers Safety After Plants Ordered To Reopen


The president of the United States has an extraordinary power at his disposal during an emergency. It's called the Defense Production Act. And it gives the president the ability to control certain aspects of private industry if it's deemed necessary to protect the health and well-being of Americans. President Trump has now invoked the act in order to keep the country's meatpacking plants open during the pandemic.

This comes after more than a dozen beef, pork and poultry plants across the country shut down either temporarily or indefinitely. And there are concerns about the food supply chain. Luke Runyon, from member station KUNC in Colorado, has been following this and joins us now. Good morning, Luke.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Just start off by walking us through exactly what this move by the president does.

RUNYON: Sure. So this order from the president most clearly gives authority to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enforce this new set of worker safety guidelines and to determine national priorities for keeping the meat supply chain going and to get these companies to do that.

MARTIN: And what's the justification? What's the administration saying about why it needs to do this now?

RUNYON: Well, it says that some of these plant closures that we've been seeing may be inconsistent with this worker safety guidance that was issued by the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and that in the order, quote, "unnecessary plant closures can have a big impact on the meat supply chain." So basically, it's suggesting that some of these plants that have closed didn't really need to.

And we should note that the worker safety guidelines the president is talking about were issued on Sunday, which is well after all a lot of the plants announced these closures in response to outbreaks among their workers and that what necessitates necessary closure isn't universally agreed upon. And we've seen meatpacking workers in several states protesting plants staying open.

MARTIN: I understand you've been in at least one of these plants. Can you just describe it? What's it like?

RUNYON: Yeah. I've been inside the big beef plant in Greeley, Colo., and it looks like an assembly line except all the workers are actually disassembling cattle. So these conveyor belts snake through the facility. And to churn out a lot of cheap meat, you have to have workers standing in close quarters along those conveyor belts for hours, cutting meat with far less than six feet between them.

And at any one time, there are thousands of workers in these plants. So you have breakrooms and cafeterias, locker rooms being used by lots of people every day. It's - I've talked to people who say it's almost impossible to socially distance in these facilities.

MARTIN: So I imagine, then, they're concerned about their own safety. What are they telling you?

RUNYON: Yeah. And we've seen protests about unsafe working conditions in several states already. Yesterday in Nebraska, some of the 2,000 workers at a Smithfield pork plant outside Lincoln briefly walked off the job to protest plans to keep it open in the midst of an outbreak at that facility, which has 48 positive cases. My colleague, Christina Stella at NET-Nebraska, spoke to this worker at the plant in Crete who asked for anonymity for fear of losing her job.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: Because it's almost like they don't care about us. Just keep production going. Keep the money coming in. Whatever they can do to just keep going - that's how I feel. And I know I'm not the only one that's, like, actually scared.

MARTIN: What about the unions representing these workers or industry representatives? I mean, what are they saying about this move by the president?

RUNYON: Well, the order's so new. One of the big companies that I asked about it yesterday afternoon said that they didn't want to comment until the order was actually issued. We did hear from a major union - the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. And while they say that they share these broader concerns about the food supply and the meat supply, they're asking for daily testing at some of these facilities and better access to personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

MARTIN: And, Luke, just finally, do we know, then, when these plants are going to reopen?

RUNYON: I think it depends on the plant and how these guidelines are actually implemented. Are these guidelines going to keep these outbreaks under control? Or are we going to keep seeing rural pockets of America with, you know, rampant spread of this virus?

MARTIN: Luke Runyon. He's a reporter for KUNC in northern Colorado. Thank you so much, Luke. We appreciate it.

RUNYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.