Coalition of worker rights advocates demands improved protections for poultry workers amid deadly Covid-19 pandemic

By Oxfam

Open letter to poultry industry urges protections including full paid sick time, improved safety protocols, premium pay for hazardous jobs and better testing and social distancing.

BOSTON, MA – As an increasing number of poultry workers die from Covid-19 and plants begin to shutter, today, national and regional worker advocate groups released a joint open letter to the poultry industry demanding improved protections for poultry workers.

The detailed letter from more than a dozen organizations including Oxfam America, A Better Balance, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, urges workers’ health and financial stability be unequivocally prioritized in recognition of their human rights and dignity, as well as their essential role in keeping America’s food system running during this emergency.

The coalition of organizations backing the open letter to the poultry industry include: A Better Balance, CATA-The Farmworkers Support Committee, Center for Progressive Reform, Centro Derechos Laborales (Bryan, TX), Greater Minnesota Workers’ Center, Human Rights Watch, Interfaith Workers Justice, Legal Aid Justice Center, National COSH, Nebraska Appleseed, Oxfam America, Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, UFCW, and the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center.

The joint letter calls for workers to receive at least two weeks of full paid sick time if they or their family members are sick and accommodations for pregnant workers or workers with underlying health conditions. It calls for improved health and safety measured including abiding by the six-feet physical distancing guideline whenever possible, enhanced protective equipment or physical barriers and temperatures checks. The letter urges the industry to provide Pandemic Premium Pay of at least time-and-a-half for all hours worked until the crisis is over, job protection and an assurance of worker voice during this unpreceded time. In short, the letter calls for essential workers be treated as essential and that first and foremost, workers are engaged and listened to in determining solutions that impact them.

With the onset of Covid-19, worker advocates warned that workers in poultry facilities are at high risk of infection given close proximity to each other on the production line and underlying socio-economic conditions of these low-wage workers and their families. Unfortunately, poultry companies have failed to adopt immediate and stringent measures to protect workers. In recent days the country has witnessed major outbreaks of meatpacking workers contracting Covid-19 followed by plant closures.

Statements in support provided by individual organizations:

Oxfam America

“Hard working women and men are being forced to choose between going to work and risking their lives in poultry plants or losing their jobs with no way to support their families,” said Oxfam America’s US Programs Director, Minor Sinclair. “This is a choice no one should have to make: the poultry industry can make significant improvements right now. They can protect their employees and offer them safety and dignity while helping to ensure our country has a reliable food supply in the midst of this unprecedented health crisis.”

A Better Balance

"Poultry workers and their families urgently need stronger workplace safety standards and protections to mitigate the additional risks they are facing during this crisis,” said Dina Bakst, Co-Founder and Co-President of A Better Balance. “We call on the poultry industry to enact fair and equitable workplace policies, including reasonable pregnancy accommodations for workers who request them, and paid leave for workers needing to care for their own health or for their family members. These frontline workers are helping keep America fed—they deserve the strongest protections available to keep them healthy."

RWDSU-UFCW

“Working in a poultry plant is hard on a good day. The COVID-19 virus is scary. We work so close together. When I think about how likely I am to catch it, and what that might mean for my family - frankly, they could lose me - I can’t even imagine,” said Robert Home, a Quality Assurance Technician who has worked for Tyson in Camilla, Georgia for 25 years. “Our plant has lost three people already to the virus, I’m terrified. This company, that we are now putting our lives on the line for, which makes billions in profits needs to do better - we can’t go to work and not know if we will make it home.”

Western North Carolina Workers’ Center

According to a member of the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center, safety precautions at the Case Farm processing plant where she worked were not sufficient enough for her to feel safe returning. “I went many times to the infirmary [to ask] for masks which were denied to me during my work shift. The distance of the employees, it was not more than two steps. Lunch time and breaks, it was [all done] in the same way [as before], they have changed nothing about worker health protection and sanitation,” said Gregoria Rivas. (Quote translated from Spanish)

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