Schakowsky Demands Protections for Meat Industry Workers

May 7, 2020
Press Release

EVANSTON, IL –With the widespread reports of serious outbreaks of COVID-19 in poultry and meat plants nationwide, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Senior Chief Deputy Whip and Chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, joined Congressmen Mark Pocan (D-WI) and David Price (D-NC) in sending the following letter to President Donald Trump, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar demanding they protect workers in these plants with real workplace standards.

Despite the outbreaks in this industry, President Trump utilized the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open—while refusing to enact any enforceable protections for the workers on the frontlines. Over 3,000 workers in the meat industry have contracted COVID-19 and at least 17 have died. The Trump administration’s careless half-measures  appear to prioritize profits over the safety of the workers producing them.

“The President is putting meat industry workers at extreme risk, without offering any tests, PPE, or requiring the companies to protect them from getting sick. These workers are predominantly people of color who are already dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates, and I am angry that they have to choose between risking their lives and their livelihood,” said Congresswoman Schakowsky. “The President isn’t concerned about anything more than the bottom line of the meat industry.”

“We are once again seeing how the inequities rampant across our society are being exacerbated by this administration’s failure to adequately respond to the crisis at hand,” said Congressman Pocan. “Better workplace standards and protections are long overdue in this industry where a disproportionate amount of the workers are people of color. Yet, now in the middle of a global pandemic with thousands of COVID-19 cases in this industry, this administration is doubling down on its refusal to protect workers in their workplaces. The sheer concentration of positive cases in these plants demands that testing be made mandatory for all meat processing workers, social distancing be strictly adhered to, and access to PPE be universal. We cannot protect our food supply chains without protecting the works that it relies on.”

“The President’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open without adequate personal protective equipment or public health policies places workers at extraordinary risk,” said Congressman David Price. “Severe outbreaks across meat processing plants reveal the major deficiencies in protective measures with tragic results. A secure food supply chain depends on the safety and wellbeing of frontline workers who should not have to choose between their health and their work. I urge the administration to implement our recommendations and will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that workers’ health remains a priority.”

See the full letter here and below.




May 1, 2020


President Donald J. Trump                                Secretary Eugene Scalia

The White House                                              United States Department of Labor

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue                                200 Constitution Avenue NW

Washington, D.C. 20500                                    Washington, DC 20210


Secretary Sonny Perdue                                     Secretary Alex M. Azar

United States Department of Agriculture            United States Department of Health and Human Services

1400 Independence Avenue SW                         200 Independence Avenue SW

Washington, D.C. 20250                                    Washington, D.C. 20201


Dear Mr. President, Secretary Scalia, Secretary Perdue, and Secretary Azar:

We are alarmed by serious outbreaks of COVID-19 cases at poultry and meat plants all over the country, and many workers have noted a lack of guidance from their employers which has put them in the position of choosing between their livelihoods and their health. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have released guidelines to promote health and safety, it is clear that the lack of enforceability has led to unacceptable examples of noncompliance.[1]

Given these serious worker safety and public health concerns, we are disappointed to see that your Executive Order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open includes no further guidance about worker safety or increased safety standards. It is certainly important that we maintain food supply chains in this time of unprecedented crisis, but that goal is undermined if workers processing the food are not kept healthy and workplaces are unsafe. More than 3,000 workers in the meat industry have already contracted COVID-19, and at least 17 have died.[2]  In light of recent outbreaks at these plants, we encourage you, the CDC, OSHA, and USDA to implement the following policies for meat processing facilities:

  • Implement strict, enforceable standards for meat processing plants that include social distancing measures and access to personal protective equipment (PPE);
  • Implement mandatory, priority COVID-19 testing for all meat processing workers and ensure that employers comply with paid sick leave laws for COVID-19 signed into law in the Families First Coronavirus Protection Act;
  • Require a decrease in line speeds at all meat processing plants, pause any existing line speed waivers, and immediately stop issuing new line speed waivers. At current line speeds, social distancing is virtually impossible;
  • Implement comprehensive whistleblower protections and anti-retaliatory measures for workers speaking out about health and safety concerns or utilizing any sick leave or other forms of leave.

Providing PPE and ensuring proper public health practices should rest on the employer and relevant federal agencies, not on the workers. Any federal mandate that an employer remains operational must come with adequate assistance from the federal government in securing necessary PPE and other safety equipment, as well as enforceable guidelines for worker safety.  A secure food supply cannot exist without healthy workers.  While the Executive Order may seek to keep meat plants open, it will not be effective without addressing worker health and safety in a more holistic manner.

We thank you for your attention to this matter and look forward to your response.




[1] Liz Crampton, “Court orders meat company to protect workers at Missouri plant,” POLITICO (April 27, 2020) available at

[2] National Employment Law Project. President Trump’s Meatpacking Plant Executive Order Puts Thousands of Workers’ Lives at Risk (April 208, 2020) available at