In the absence of meaningful action by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), more than a dozen states, including Virginia, have issued emergency safety measures to protect essential workers from the risks of COVID-19. But Maryland – home to one of the largest poultry industries in the nation – is glaringly absent from that list.
We’ve seen dramatic changes in response to the coronavirus in the transportation, retail, and restaurant industries, but behind the closed doors at poultry plants, workers face dire health risks while continuing to labor in fear of contracting COVID-19.
Prior to the pandemic, workers in the poultry industry faced some fairly egregious working conditions. Inside plants, workers labor side-by-side while as many as 175 birds whizz by every minute for "processing." Painful repetitive stress injuries and cuts due to increased line speeds are all too common at these processing facilities. Reports from plant workers show that many are not permitted to take necessary bathroom breaks and resort to wearing adult diapers to make it through shifts.
A few weeks after the pandemic hit, many of the counties where meat and poultry processing facilities were located (and neighboring counties) had COVID-19 infection rates that were almost double the national average. All told, outbreaks, hotspots and COVID-19-related deaths traced back to meat processing plants have skyrocketed in 26 states across the country, Maryland included.
By early June, the coronavirus had already taken five Maryland poultry plant workers' lives and infected more than 200 other employees; hundreds of more community members suffered coronavirus infections linked to two poultry processing plants on the Eastern Shore. That number has likely grown since June, in the absence of serious protective measures.
Aggravating matters — many poultry plant workers are low-income workers, here on H-2A and H-2B temporary work visas. H-2A and H-2B workers, though deemed essential, live in fear of losing their jobs and are understandably afraid to speak out about poor or unsafe workplace conditions, while also facing language barriers. Many of these workers travel to work in close-quartered vehicles, where social distancing is impossible, sleep in crowded settings, and lack access to health insurance, medical care and paid sick leave. Some horrendous reports include plant employers giving employees ice cream before required thermometer checks to enter the workplace.
The men and women who work at poultry plants labor under backbreaking conditions under the best of circumstances. In the middle of the pandemic, the added burden they bear is intolerable. It persists at least in part because the workers are treated as invisible to many of us – essential, but still invisible.
While the Centers for Disease Control visited two poultry processing plants on the Eastern Shore and required the replacement of fans and plastic barriers between workstations, poultry plant workers still lack basic protections that would keep them, their families, and communities safe from the risks of the coronavirus. Such basic protections should include required physical distancing between plant workers, such personal protective equipment as masks and gloves, frequent sanitizing of work stations, access to handwashing stations (and required breaks to use them), free on-site coronavirus testing, shared information (offered in multiple languages) about plant-related coronavirus cases, paid sick leave, access to free or affordable medical care, and whistleblower protections.
Since OSHA has failed to take any serious action or enforcement that would protect essential workers during the pandemic, it’s up to states to mandate that employees at meat processing facilities and other essential workers are offered basic protections in the workplace, as well as in employer-provided housing and transportation vehicles.
The Center for Progressive Reform is among dozens of other groups calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to issue an executive order requiring Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) to adopt new protective regulations for businesses in response to the pandemic. In particular, Maryland should act immediately to prevent poultry plant-related outbreaks by adopting an Emergency Temporary Standard that requires employers to create a safe working environment for essential workers and also makes clear that all essential workers are protected if they choose to report violations. The state should also prevent employers from firing employees due to COVID-19 related illnesses or for declining to work in unsafe circumstances.
The men and women who work at poultry plants labor under backbreaking conditions under the best of circumstances. In the middle of the pandemic, the added burden they bear is intolerable. It persists at least in part because the workers are treated as invisible to many of us – essential, but still invisible. It is impossible to imagine, for example, that Governor Hogan would permit his own staff to face such risks on a daily basis. Poultry workers deserve no less simply because they are poorly paid and may not be native English speakers.
Amidst a public health crisis, it’s both a moral and a public-health imperative that Maryland acts to protect those who provide our food. Without appropriate safety measures, these workplaces will continue to seed new infections as states work to reopen, needlessly sacrificing the health and lives of workers and those with whom they come in contact.