Community Perspective: Health standards needed to protect workers

A contributed perspectives piece by Michael Snell-Feikema

In response to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, members of Congress, including Virginia U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, tried to get the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create mandatory and enforceable standards to protect workers, but they were blocked by the current administration that wanted purely voluntary guidelines without inspections or sanctions.  

Debbie Berkowitz, a top expert on worker safety issues at NELP, the National Employment Law Project, described the current regulatory situation, saying, “There is no mandate to protect workers anywhere … There could have been a standard. No one realizes how weak worker safety protections really are.”  

The result was a disaster that might have been dramatically lessened if mandatory and enforceable standards based on the best science had been put in place. Regulation does not sound very sexy to many Americans, raised on the myth of the frontier, but science-based regulation can mean the difference between health and illness, between life and death. According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, as of June 16, “there have been at least 25,000 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 238 plants in 33 states, and at least 91 reported worker deaths at 39 plants in 24 states.” Counties with meat processing facilities are twice as likely to become hot spots of COVID-19, according to the Environmental Working Group.  

This national pattern has been replicated in Virginia on the Eastern Shore and in the central Shenandoah Valley. On the Eastern Shore, there has been PPS, or point prevalence survey, testing of all the workers at two poultry plants which employ more than 3,000 workers. Over 510 workers tested positive that had not been discovered by the other forms of testing used such as free community tests in neighborhoods or by private physicians or hospitals. Anywhere from 25 to 50% of positive cases are asymptomatic and do not get counted by these methods of testing.

In the central Shenandoah Valley, there has been no PPS testing of the workers in the poultry plants like the tests that were done on the Eastern Shore. As a result, the actual extent of COVID-19 here is not actually known. If 510 positive cases showed up through the PPS testing of 3,000 workers, how many positives might have shown up out of the 10,000 workers in the Shenandoah Valley with the same method? 

There is little chance that mandatory and enforceable standards at the federal level will be passed under the current administration in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, Governor Northam acted on the state level. He charged DOLI, the Department of Labor and Industry, to work with the federally approved, but state-run Virginia Occupational Safety and Health program (VOSH), to create mandatory and enforceable standards, not only for poultry workers but for all workers. Megan Healey, the governor’s chief workforce development advisor, acknowledged that the work of our statewide poultry worker coalition played an important role in encouraging Gov. Northam to take this step. Community solidarity combined with legal and political acumen can make a difference. These regulations are not perfect but they are an important first step in the right direction. We must support the right of workers to file complaints without fear of retaliation. 

We are now in a ten-day period during which the public may submit written comments on the proposed regulations to the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board which will vote on the standards on Wednesday, June 24. The deadline for submitting written comments to the Board is Monday, June 22, at 11:59 PM. If the regulations are passed they will go into effect as soon as they have been appropriately advertised.  

On Thursday, June 18, the Harrisonburg City Council unanimously passed a resolution, introduced by Vice-mayor Sal Romero, that is well worth reading, urging the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board to pass the proposed mandatory standards, and they will submit it as a written comment.

Our coalition partner, the Legal Aid Justice Center, has created a page on their website designed to make submitting a written comment to the board as easy as possible. All you need to do is click on this link and the page will guide you through the process which is really quite simple. For more information go to the Justice for Poultry Workers Facebook page. 

Michael Snell-Feikema is a member of the Community Solidarity with the Poultry Workers organization.

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