USDA is not providing employees protective equipment, and until recently, prohibited the use of masks.
Federal food inspectors are raising concerns about the conditions at their workplaces as several processing plants across the country have seen spikes in employees testing positive for COVID-19.
The outbreaks could impact operations at slaughterhouses and other plants around the country as Agriculture Department employees stay home due to illness, potential exposure or fear of contracting the novel coronavirus. The inspectors' concerns have been heightened by what they view as an inconsistent and incomplete response from their USDA agency, the Food Safety Inspection Service, which has not made protective equipment such as masks available to its workforce.
At the outset of the pandemic, FSIS told employees they were not permitted to wear masks because of the fears it could create in the workplace, according to multiple inspectors. That policy appeared to override existing FSIS guidance that employees could wear N95 masks if they felt comfortable and received permission to do so. The agency reversed course on Monday, now allowing inspectors to wear their own masks at food processing plants. It added, however, the workers must ask the company operating the plant for permission to wear the masks and remove them if the plant makes such a request.
"While the department is unable to provide masks to all mission essential employees at this time, we will notify our workforce as soon as possible and additional information, guidance or supplies become available,” USDA wrote in a memo to employees this week reviewed by Government Executive. The department said it is now “actively assessing” its stockpile of personal protective equipment.
One inspector said the agency originally told employees it would provide anyone who contracted the virus or was exposed to it with paid administrative leave, but since changed that policy. Instead, employees must have a government order to receive administrative leave for potential exposure and must use their own sick leave if they test positive for COVID-19.
“You go back to work even if you work with someone who was sick,” the employee said. She added some employees, including those who work for the plants rather than the government, have insufficient sick leave and are therefore reluctant to take off even after showing symptoms. “Some people are going to work sick. They’re waiting to be told to go home. You’re working next to people, you don’t know where they’ve been.”
As employees voice their fears, several plants around the country have emerged as coronavirus hotspots. At a Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, more than 80 plant employees have tested positive for the virus. The plant initially refused to close, largely at the direction of the federal government.
“They have been told by the federal government to stay open,” Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said at a press conference on Thursday. Smithfield’s CEO, Ken Sullivan, exited a call with the mayor on Thursday to speak with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue so Perdue could stress “the importance of staying open,” TenHaken said.
Later on Thursday, Smithfield announced it would close the plant for three days to institute a “deep cleaning and sanitization.”
“Smithfield Foods is taking the utmost precautions and actions to ensure the health and wellbeing of our employees, with an even increased emphasis on our critical role in the ongoing supply of food to American families,” said Sullivan, the company’s CEO. “Not operating is not an option. People need to eat.”
At least one FSIS inspector, who was based in New York City and traveled around to several plants as a potential carrier, has died from COVID-19. Eleven employees had tested positive as of last week, but FSIS did not respond to a request for an updated figure or other questions in time for publication of this story. At a JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, more than a dozen plant employees have tested positive for the virus and one has died. More than 800 JBS employees at the plant called out last week as a result.
“They are very scared and fearful,” said Paula Schelling, a food inspector for 32 years and head of the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents 6,500 FSIS employees, whose members are present at every plant in the country, such as those in Sioux Falls and Greeley. She added the guidance the agency has put out to employees “doesn’t protect the individual one bit.”
While Schelling said a “majority of [inspectors] are going in and performing their duties,” there is a growing concern about absenteeism. Some plants have already cut back hours of operation due to a staffing shortage.
“There’s a lot” of employees who call in sick, one inspector said, “especially in the larger plants. They hear one person gets sick, and then everybody gets really scared. Then you have all these people calling in.”
The employee added she was not looking for an excuse to get out of work.
“I love my job,” the inspector said. “I’ve been doing my job for 10 years.” But, she added, employees are worried about becoming ill. “ If you’re told you can’t wear a mask to work, you worry about bringing that home to your family.”
While FSIS has said it is “prepared to be operationally nimble” using its administrative authorities and that “planning for absenteeism is a part of normal FSIS operations,” it is already struggling to keep up with evolving demands. The agency sent employees from Nebraska to Colorado to supplement inspections there, for example, but after exposure to the virus had to quarantine those workers. It then had to send inspectors from another part of Nebraska to cover for those workers.
Tony Corbo, the senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, said he was told in a meeting with FSIS the agency was prepared to bring back intermittent workers it sometimes hires during busy seasons. Corbo noted many of those employees are recent retirees, who are older and more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“Well I guess we’re not going to ask you to go come back,” an FSIS official said to Corbo, who has never worked as an inspector.
FSIS has told employees to practice social distancing while at work, but Corbo said that is “practically impossible” at most facilities. He noted the Trump administration is reluctant to take any action that could inhibit inspections, as that would force plants to close and disrupt the food supply chain.
“You have USDA sending inspectors into these plants because they want the production to go on and it’s really endangering the lives of the inspectors,” Corbo said. He added as the inspectors see a growing number of plant workers staying home, they are going to ask themselves, “Why should we go endanger our lives?”
Corbo cautioned that going forward a depleted plant and federal inspection workforce could cause additional plants to close, a food shortage, and if stress and distraction cause subpar oversight, a foodborne illness outbreak.