Despite efforts to leave the worst of 2020 behind in the new year, 2021 finds us still battling COVID-19. While precautions have been put in place, many are skeptical that the federal government is doing enough to protect the essential workers who have been on the frontlines since last March.
Deborah Berkowitz, a former official for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), said that the Trump administration has neglected to implement proper safety regulations for meatpacking plants and other workplaces.
“What keeps me up at night is that 9 months after the beginning of the pandemic, that there are still no specific requirements that as a nation, every business that has employees has to implement to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Berkowitz told NPR.
She went on to say that OSHA should have done 10,000 to 20,000 safety inspections since March and instead has done only a few hundred. “OSHA has been AWOL,” she said in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition.
When the COVID-19 outbreak began in 2020, certain employees were classified as “essential workers” and companies promised to institute safety precautions. However, Berkowitz doesn’t feel like they followed through enough on this promise. She says:
“Oh, this administration totally took its eye off the ball and completely failed to protect workers. The secretary of labor under President Trump, Eugene Scalia, decided there would be no requirements and just let employers do what they want to do voluntarily. Some of the plants put in these flimsy plastic barriers between workers where there’s like 500 workers in a big room working shoulder to shoulder that even the CDC said to them does not protect workers unless you have social distancing 6 feet apart.”
When asked what OSHA needs to do right now to make workplaces safe from the spread, Berkowitz—who ran the agency for 6 years, criticized the agency for falling behind on their inspections.
“Usually, OSHA, during the last nine months, would have done 10,000, maybe 20,000 inspections. They [only] did a couple hundred.”
In Berkowitz’s opinion, essential workers have a right to demand that their employers follow basic CDC compliance in regards to COVID-19, including provision of masks and other PPP, social distancing protocols, and notifications when cases arise in the workplace.
“The bottom line,” said Berkowitz, “I think what you find out in this pandemic and the public should realize is worker-safety rights right now are really weak. And maybe this pandemic will cause us to rethink this ability of workers to protect themselves, which right now they really don’t have.”
COVID-19 and meatpacking plants in Georgia
Georgia is home to a number of meatpacking plants, including Perdue Foods in Houston County, Tip Top Poultry in Cobb County and Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation in Cherokee County. While this is great for the local and state economy, it has certain risks when it comes to COVID-19.
Slaughterhouse workers are often in close proximity and share the same tools. It’s hard to practice social distancing in this kind of environment. Though workers can’t necessarily follow all of the guidelines, they can still comply within reasonable limits, such as washing hands often, wearing masks and staying home when they feel under the weather.