WASHINGTON – A growing number of food processing and meat plant workers are getting sick from the coronavirus (COVID-19) prompting labor interests to demand stronger health protections and higher employment benefits for the individuals working to get food to US consumers.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Anthony M. Perrone, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), urged the US Department of Agriculture to adopt a series of safety actions and guidelines for all meatpacking facilities.

“America’s meatpacking workers have been on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic from the beginning, working tirelessly to make sure families have the food they need during this crisis,” Perrone said. “These brave men and women are providing an essential service despite enormous risk to their own health and the health of their families. Every day, these workers are not only putting their lives on the line to protect our nation’s food supply, they continue to work in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.

 “The threat these workers face during this outbreak is real and their safety concerns must be addressed immediately. At least six of our own members in meatpacking facilities have tragically passed away and hundreds more have been impacted by this ongoing pandemic. All across the country, we are witnessing meatpacking facilities having to close down, endangering our food supply at the worst possible moment.”

First, essential workers, such as those working in the meat packing and food processing industries, should be prioritized for coronavirus testing to ensure the health and safety of workers and protect the food supply. Essential workers also should be given immediate access to personal protective equipment (PPE).

“The reality is that many of our meatpacking members lack the critical personal protection equipment necessary to do their job and reduce the risk of exposure,” Perrone said in the letter. “It is essential that the USDA, in conjunction with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, prioritize all meatpacking and food workers for PPE to ensure the health and safety of these workers and to protect our food supply.”

Next, the union has called for an immediate halt on processing line speed waivers that permit chicken processors participating in the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) to operate without line speed caps if they can maintain process control.

“Rather than protect our food supply and workers, these waivers guarantee that workers are more crowded along a meatpacking line and more workers are put at risk of either catching or spreading the virus,” Perrone said. “It is critical that the USDA immediately cease granting any new waivers and suspend all existing waivers that allow plants to operate at faster speeds.”

UFCW also urged USDA to mandate social distancing where possible and isolate workers that test positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The union said at least 613 UFCW members who work in meat packing and poultry plants have been directly impacted by COVID-19 and six have died and five UFCW-represented meatpacking facilities are closed.

Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods became the most recent meat processor to close facilities due to COVID-19 when the company announced the closure of two manufacturing plants in Rochelle, Ill., and Alma, Kan.

Smithfield Foods Inc. closed its plants in Cudahy, Wisc., and Martin City, Mo., where several employees tested positive. The company also has closed its Sioux City, SD, pork processing plant local health officials linked to a large outbreak in the local community.

JBS USA has temporarily closed its Greeley, Colo., beef processing plant, and Tyson Foods Inc. had closed its pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa.

“In light of the largest outbreak to date at Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, SD, it is critical to identify and isolate workers who have tested positive or who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19,” the letter stated. “These workers should be allowed to quarantine at home, with pay, per the recommendations set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

In a conference call with media on April 17, Perdue said it was not the role of USDA to acquire coronavirus tests. However, Perdue acknowledged the urgent need for testing of essential workers.

“We are talking with everyone to secure these and hopefully we can get these tests at the appropriate plants as quickly as possible so they can get back online,” he said.