New York (CNN Business)Meat-processing plant workers are concerned about President Donald Trump’s executive order that compels plants to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic. Meat plant employees are among America’s most vulnerable workers, and some say they expect staff will refuse to come to work.
“All I know is, this is crazy to me, because I can’t see all these people going back into work,” said Donald, who works at Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa, facility. “I don’t think people are going to go back in there.”
Donald asked to be referred to by his first name only. He is currently recovering after testing positive for the virus.
“I’m still trying to figure out: What is he going to do, force them to stay open? Force people to go to work?” he asked.
CNN Business has spoken to employees in several Tyson plants who do not want to be named for fear of losing their jobs.
On Tuesday, Trump signed the order after some companies, such as Tyson Foods, were considering only keeping 20% of their facilities open. The vast majority of processing plants could have shut down — which would have reduced processing capacity in the country by as much as 80%, an official familiar with the order told CNN.
Over the past several weeks, a number of major meat suppliers have announced temporary closures as workers fall ill with Covid-19. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union estimated Tuesday that 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have died so far.
The situation has gotten so severe, company executives warned, that the US meat supply could be at risk. John Tyson, chairman of the Tyson (TSN)board, warned of limited supply if plant shortages continue.
By invoking the Defense Production Act, Trump is requiring plants to remain open with some of the most dangerous conditions during the pandemic.
For years, major meat processors have been ruthlessly tamping down costs and increasing efficiencies. That has contributed to a hazardous working environment even before the coronavirus hit.
Over the years, meat processing companies have been speeding up production lines to process more meat in each facility. Faster lines require more workers who have to stand closer together.
Trump had a very different of meat-packing plants a year ago, when he ordered the facilities to be raided by ICE and “illegals” be rounded up and deported. Nearly 30% of meat-packing workers are foreign-born, said a 2016 Government Accountability Office report. Nearly two-thirds are either Latino (35%), Black (20%) or Asian (8%), according to a 2016 Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center report.
But by signing the order, Trump declared these plants part of critical infrastructure in the United States.
“We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that’ll solve any liability problems,” Trump said on Tuesday.
One worker who is employed at Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa, facility held out hope regarding Trump’s order.
“All in all, it can be a good thing if done right,” the person said. “But my faith in this administration has never been strong and is nonexistent currently. I wanna know what these added ‘liability protections’ are going to be.”
Other workers are skeptical.
“I just don’t know how they’re going to do it when there are people dying and getting really sick,” said an employee of Tyson’s Independence, Iowa, plant. “Who’s to say people are even gonna show up to work?”
– CNN’s Ramon Escobar, Kaitlan Collins and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report
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