Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) pressed the White House on Tuesday for more protections for poultry and meatpacking workers in Maryland and across the country.
Frosh led a coalition of 20 attorneys general in urging President Trump to take immediate action to improve working conditions at meatpacking facilities across the country, as the number of infections and deaths from the novel coronavirus rise among workers.
In April, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat and poultry processors operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The industry’s workers are risking their lives to maintain production in these facilities under extremely unsafe working conditions. Your action purporting to force plants to stay open and employees to continue working must be accompanied by the enforcement of standards to ensure the safety of these essential workers,” Frosh and the other attorneys general wrote in a letter sent Tuesday.
According to a database maintained by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, there were at least 12,500 positive COVID-19 cases and 53 worker deaths tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 180 plants in 31 states as of Tuesday.
There were 362 confirmed COVID-19 cases connected to the poultry industry in Maryland as of Tuesday, according to governor’s office spokesman Michael Ricci. The Salisbury Daily Times reported last week on the death of a worker at the Perdue plant in April.
Perdue Farms, which operates a chicken processing factory and its headquarters in Salisbury, has outlined its response to COVID-19 cases, including slower production to increase physical distancing between workers, enhanced cleaning procedures and extended free medical clinic hours for workers and their families.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has prioritized universal COVID-19 testing at Perdue and Amick Farms in Hurlock.
The Salisbury area, which includes other nearby processing plants in Delaware, was listed in a New York Times analysis as the 10th worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country on Tuesday, though the rate of new cases in the area is flattening.
Teams from the Centers for Disease Control and state epidemiologists responded to the Eastern Shore late last month to monitor infection responses there.
The attorneys general are pressing for mandatory changes to the meatpacking industry nationwide in light of the pandemic.
Guidance issued by the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration ― which include physical distancing, enhanced hygiene, and employee medical screenings ― is voluntary under Trump’s order.
“Without making these standards mandatory and taking decisive action to enforce them, the Administration will fail in its duty to provide meaningful protection to workers that have been deemed essential to maintaining our food supply,” the attorneys general wrote. “The toll may be thousands more falling victim to this disease.”
The attorneys general are pressing for the guidelines to be strengthened and made mandatory, and for the federal government to provide testing and protective equipment for workers. The AG’s are also calling for full pay and time off for workers who test positive and the suspension of all “line speed waivers,” which require employees to butcher carcasses at a faster rate.
The attorneys also expressed concern that Trump’s order implies immunity from liability for meat processors that require employees to continue reporting to work during the pandemic. That provision could undermine the ability of state and local leaders to protect workers, the attorneys general wrote.
Frosh was joined by the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
As of Tuesday morning, there were more than 34,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maryland, and 1,643 Marylanders have died from the virus since mid-March.