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Hartzler Demands Clarification on Guidelines for Reopening Meatpackers

May 13, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (MO-04), along with Congressman Sam Graves (MO-06), sent a letter to Dr. Robert Redfield, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) within Department of Health and Human Services and Loren Sweatt, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Occupational Safety and Health Administration within the Department of Labor, asking for further clarification and common sense implementation of best practices to protect workers as meatpacking plants re-open across the country. Current uncertainty regarding CDC/OSHA issued guidance leaves meat processing facilities in need of clarification so they can safely reopen their plants.
 
Due to COVID-19 outbreaks among workers at meatpacking plants, many have been forced to cease operations or run at decreased capacity throughout the country. These disruptions are causing shortages in grocery stores throughout the country with supplies of beef, pork, and poultry dwindling while producers are struggling to find a market for their livestock. In response, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on April 28, to ensure the Secretary of Agriculture has the tools necessary to protect our meat supply and ensure meat processing facilities get back up and running.
 
“Not only do the closed meatpacking plants impact America’s food supply, but farmers in my district are in jeopardy of losing their farms if they can’t deliver their livestock to market. It is tragic that hungry families cannot find pork in the grocery store and farmers are having to depopulate their herds because there is nowhere for them to go with their livestock because the meatpacking plants are closed. We must get these plants reopened safely as soon as possible. In order to do that, meatpackers must have further clarity on the CDC/OSHA issued guidelines and these government agencies must work with them to find the most practical ways to reopen safely. Workers and meatpacking plants must have confidence in the best practices so plant operations are safe, effective, and sustainable. I hope that additional clarity will move us closer to fully open and operational meatpacking plants throughout Missouri and throughout our country,” Hartzler said.
 
“America has consistently had the world’s safest, most affordable food supply. However, that is in jeopardy as a result of COVID-19. Most of our meat processors have either been shuttered or running at a reduced capacity, while they try to discern what the CDC and OSHA expects of them. As a result, our producers have nowhere to go with their animals, which threatens to put them out of business, and consumers are seeing increasingly empty store shelves.  It’s imperative that the CDC and OSHA present clear, common-sense guidelines which enable our meat processors to protect the health and safety of their workers, while helping to maintain the availability of our country’s food supply, and the livelihoods of farmers throughout North Missouri,” Graves said.

A copy of the letter text can be found below:
 
Robert R. Redfield, MD                                             
Director                                                                       
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services      
Center for Disease Control and Prevention                
395 E Street, SW, Suite 9100                                     
Washington DC 20201                                                           

Loren Sweatt
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
U.S. Department of Labor
Occupational Safety & Health Administration
200 Constitution Ave NW
Washington, DC 20210
 
Dear Director Redfield and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Sweatt,
 
Thank you for your work in addressing our country’s current COVID-19 pandemic and how we can best mitigate the spread of this deadly virus. We are grateful for the critical role essential workers play in ensuring our country can survive this crisis.  The goal should be to both keep workers safe while also applying common sense to safety regulations to enable these essential plants to operate safely at as high of capacity as possible.  When working with meat processing plants, some have expressed uncertainty over properly implementing CDC and OSHA guidance for “Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers”. As such, we respectfully request clarity on the following points as soon as possible:
  • How should employers best consider workers’ individual risk factors (e.g. older age; presence of chronic medical conditions, including immunocompromising conditions, pregnancy) while staying within legal confines of worker protection and non-discrimination laws?
  • When determining six (6) feet between individuals, can this be measured from nose-to-nose vs shoulder-to-shoulder? For meat processing plants which were originally designed to have workers work side-by-side approximately 18 - 24” apart, how six feet is calculated can have a tremendous impact on operations and capacity to keep food going to grocery shelves.  We would hope that a nose-to-nose calculation of the six (6) foot spacing would suffice.
  • The guidance includes diagrams to suggest that if there are curtains or barriers placed between individual workers that this serves as engineering controls for physical distancing.  Is this a correct interpretation of the guidance;
    • that workers could continue to safely work closer together than the six feet if they are only wearing provided masks and face shields or;
    • wearing masks with barriers between them?
If not, we would request CDC reconsider the guidance and recommendations for this situation. This would prevent fewer livestock from having to be destroyed and more meat placed on families’ tables.  
  • The guidance suggests that a risk assessment may determine that there are areas of the plant where placing barriers between employees is not feasible for various reasons and that the plant could determine that a mask and face shield are sufficient to be in compliance with CDC and OSHA guidelines.  If this is not a correct interpretation, we would request CDC reconsider the guidance and recommendations for this situation.
  • What commonsense flexibilities can be made in areas of plants, such as changing room lockers, that CDC and OSHA guidance is not feasible to incorporate?
  • Given the changing nature of CDC and OSHA guidance, for example, changing the timeframe for asymptomatic employees who test positive to return to work from seven (7) to ten (10) days, would CDC and OSHA consider establishing implementation dates when new guidance is issued so past compliance is not questioned?
  • Can CDC and OSHA further clarify what constitutes encouraging employees to avoid carpooling and the guidance that falls under that suggestion? What responsibility does the employer have legally to things beyond their control?
  • Would it be appropriate for CDC and OSHA guidance to encourage antibody testing to help processors gain a better understanding of who is safe to continuing working?  How would meat processing employers and employees be expected to use the results of such tests to make operating and public health decisions – assuming such tests would be voluntary, ie. not a condition of employment?  
As we continue to work with our plant managers and local leadership, we request these clarifications be written into the guidance to help these leaders ensure they are properly protecting workers while continuing to supply safe and nutritious protein to American consumers. Time is of the essence. As you have heard, many farmers are facing depopulating their herds because meat processing plants have been shut down or have reduced capacity.  It is imperative the workers are safe and feel confident coming back to work or continuing to work while, at the same time, processors aren’t unnecessarily forced to reconfigure and re-engineer their plants when other, common sense measures could allow them to continue operating safely and efficiently. 

Plants want to do all they can to achieve these two goals but need certainty that their good-faith actions following your guidelines will allow them to operate with confidence.  The answers to the above questions via letter and additional published guidelines will give helpful clarity that is so needed and critical to our communities and our economy right now.
 
Thank you for your prompt response to our questions.