In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, over 600 people connected to a Smithfield pork plant have contracted the COVID-19 virus—and two workers have died. Workers at the plant had access to hand sanitizer only after the first confirmed case. Then, even after it was clear COVID-19 was present in the plant, Smithfield offered a “responsibility bonus” of $500 to employees that didn’t miss work in April.
Smithfield should have shown some responsibility to their workers and taken immediate action to keep their workers safe. They did not. Now, two workers have lost their lives, hundreds of people are sick, and the company shut the plant down. They have since announced the closure of two other plants in Wisconsin and Missouri.
Unsafe working conditions aren’t a new thing to the hundreds of thousands of workers in America’s meatpacking industry. The meat industry has historically been a bad actor in safeguarding workers on the job. And regulators have done little to hold companies accountable for their blatant disregard for the health and lives of their workers.
Under Donald Trump, things have gone from bad to worse, and not just in the meatpacking industry. Fatalities in the workplace reached a 10-year-high in 2018. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is toothless under this president. The swamp full of corporate shills he has assembled in his cabinet includes Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, a lawyer with a long history of busting unions and filing lawsuits against worker safeguards on behalf of his corporate clients. As Secretary of Labor, Scalia oversees OSHA.
Scalia may be the fox guarding the henhouse. But, Donald Trump is the man who put the fox there.
This new crisis has brought a bright spotlight to how little Trump—and his administration—values the lives of working people. OSHA has done next to nothing to protect workers in the age of COVID-19. The agency has broad power and the authority to help workers right now. But, under Trump, it has done nothing but put out statements and take only the bare minimum action that allows it to say that it at least did something. Instead of issuing a set of emergency rules to keep workers safe, OSHA has published some guidance that industry can—and likely will—ignore. Just like industry often ignores the paltry fines levied when workers die.
American corporations have again and again gotten away with putting workers in harm’s way. It took pressure from the public in the form of drive-by protests for Smithfield to protect workers by shutting down the plant to stop the spread. Where was OSHA? Why didn’t the agency step in to protect workers?
We can’t solely rely on companies to do right by workers but there are good actors out there. For example, public utility company American Water—which provides services to 14 million Americans in 46 states—has been working with its union members from the Utility Workers Union of America to ensure the water keeps running but also that workers are protected on the job. They have implemented preventative measures, including only allowing single occupants in all work vehicles, implementing A/B shifts (one week on, one week off) based on outbreaks by location, and creating a hardship fund that employees can apply for to receive resources.
Unfortunately, all companies live up to the responsibility to protect their workers. Congress created OSHA to protect workers and ensure they didn’t have to rely on their company’s good graces to put live-saving measures in place. Under Trump, the agency is missing in action.
If Donald Trump won’t make OSHA do its job, Congress must step in immediately and force it to protect workers.