The United Foods and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union sent letters this week to the USDA and Vice President Pence asking for actions to protect employees of packing plants from COVID-19 and protect the food supply chain.
“America's elected leaders whether or not it's local, state, or federal need to realize this: America's food supply depends on these workers. It feeds America. And while this union and some of our employers have made some changes, quite honestly, we're not seeing the scope of the changes that are needed to protect these workers, and our food supply as we move forward,” said Marc Perrone, UFCW international president, in a conference call.
The union calls for a series of five safety actions targeted to the meatpacking industry including:
- increased worker testing,
- priority access to PPE,
- halting line speed waivers
- mandating social distancing, and
- isolating workers with symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.
The union also released new statistics about the impact COVID-19 is having on its members. Based on UFCW estimates, 10 meatpacking workers and three food processing workers have died and estimates that at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus, Perrone said. The estimate of impacted workers includes those who have tested positive for COVID-19, have missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results or have been hospitalized and/or are symptomatic.
“Unless immediate changes are made, America's food processing and meatpacking workers are in danger. And so is America's food supply,” Perrone said.
UFCW said 13 packing plants have closed at some point in the past two months, affecting 24,500 workers and resulting in a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity and a 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
“Across this country, we are seeing the impact when the government fails to take steps to protect these essential workers. It needs to both provide testing and protective equipment and issue clear and direct safety guidelines that companies can and must enforce. This is not just about whether we will have enough beef, chicken, and pork to feed our families. It is – for these workers – a matter of life and death,” Perrone said.
The UFCW represents 1.3 million workers across the food supply chain, including 250,000 who are meatpacking and food processing workers.