USDA meat inspectors are worried about exposure to coronavirus at U.S. processing facilities.

USDA meat inspectors are worried about exposure to coronavirus at U.S. processing facilities. USDA photo

Federal Inspectors Are Fearful, Angry About Trump's Order to Reopen Outbreak-Stricken Meat Plants

USDA is still not providing masks and is doing "absolutely nothing" to protect workers, inspectors say.

President Trump’s attempt to reopen meat processing plants that were forced to close after large pockets of employees contracted the novel coronavirus has the federal employees who inspect every facility in the country on edge and concerned about what protections the government will provide. 

Trump issued an executive order this week seeking to compel companies to resume operations at more than a dozen facilities that shuttered due to COVID-19 outbreaks, saying the invocation of the Defense Production Act was necessary to protect the nation’s food supply chain. At some facilities, hundreds of plant employees tested positive for COVID-19 before public health officials required closures. The outbreaks also affected the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service employees, nearly 140 of whom had contracted the virus as of last week. Two federal inspectors have died from COVID-19 related symptoms. 

“To combat this crisis and ensure the adequate availability of food for the American people, it is vital that these processors are able to remain operating at this critical moment,” the White House said in a statement accompanying the order, “while also taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities.”

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has lobbied companies and local leaders to keep plants open even as hotspots developed, said the department would keep employees safe. He said USDA would work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to implement guidelines for reopening plants.  

“USDA will continue to work with its partners across the federal government to ensure employee safety to maintain this essential industry,” Perdue said.  

Employees, however, said they have received no details on how the department will keep that promise. FSIS is still not providing personal protective equipment—including masks—to its inspectors, instead offering a one-time $50 stipend for employees to procure their own. On Wednesday, FSIS held telephonic town halls with employees, as it has done each week during the pandemic. For the first time, however, FSIS took no questions from employees, citing “inappropriate” leaks to the media and privacy concerns. 

“We’re pretty angry about it,” one inspector said of the one-sided town hall he listened to. “They said they would answer the most frequently asked questions but they’re not doing that.” 

Paula Schelling, a food inspector for 32 years and head of the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents 6,500 FSIS employees, said her members were frustrated by their inability to ask questions, especially given the lack of information they are receiving about Trump’s order. 

“It is very disturbing to them that the agency and government are putting them in the harm’s way and not providing a safe work environment,” Schelling said. “There has been absolutely nothing in terms of what FSIS will do to protect employees when they reopen these facilities. Absolutely nothing.” 

She added employees are facing “fear and uncertainty,” and those feelings are only exacerbated by Trump’s order.

“‘The agency is doing nothing to protect us,’” Schelling said, summarizing the complaint she has most consistently heard from inspectors. She added that employees will have little recourse but to continue going to work. “They’re going to have to follow what their supervisor tells them to do, and if that means I have to report to work at ‘plant whatever,’ I have to follow those instructions.” 

FSIS has scrambled to reassign employees from shuttered facilities to those with new outbreaks, raising concerns it will exacerbate the spread by moving workers from one hotspot to another. The agency has instructed those with known exposure to the novel coronavirus to continue reporting to work.

A USDA spokesman said FSIS is "maintaining all required inspection services to ensure that establishments can operate and that Americans are fed." If necessary, the spokesman said, the agency will deploy non-inspectors to inspection rolls or use employees trained in inspection from USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service or the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 

An FSIS inspector who spoke to Government Executive on the condition of anonymity due to a fear of retribution said employees understood why the Trump administration felt the need to compel plants to reopen, but they are worried about getting sick. FSIS initially banned employees from wearing masks at work, saying it would cause unnecessary panic at the plants, but reversed that policy earlier this month. That, as well as the closure of the worst hit facilities and reduction in shifts to allow more time for facility cleanings, helped ease some concerns.

Now, the inspector said, employees are “being thrown back under the bus that they were finally starting to crawl out from underneath.” 

FSIS did not address Trump’s order during its town halls on Wednesday, and USDA did not respond to inquiries. Paul Kiecker, the FSIS administrator, told employees they should take distancing policies seriously, though inspectors have previously said such efforts are impossible at high-volume plants. He noted some facilities are providing masks to their workers and should do the same for inspectors, though FSIS employees at other plants would have to find their own protective equipment. 

The agency is “running down every option, every lead and every suggestion we receive on where we can secure PPE,” Kiecker told his workforce. He said he expected the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ship masks, and begin making weekly hand sanitizer deliveries, “in the near future.” The administrator said he expects shuttered facilities to implement employee testing before reopening, and FSIS employees “should also be tested” as part of that process. 

Tony Corbo, the senior government affairs representative at Food and Water Watch, said Trump’s order did little to address employee safety. Trump tasked Perdue with developing implementation guidance, and the secretary told Bloomberg plants would reopen in a matter of days. 

“This executive order does not deal with the basic safety issues for the inspectors or the plant workers,” Corbo said. “When it comes to their own employees, when it comes to the inspectors, there’s nothing that gives them any solace that they are being taken care of when walking into unsafe working conditions.”

The FSIS inspector said agency employees care enough about their jobs to continue doing them, but people are nervous.

“People are still pretty scared about it,” the employee said, adding Trump’s order could embolden companies to act without employees’ best interests at heart. “Now companies will not be held accountable for how safe and how unsafe they are being.” 

On a call with stakeholders last week, Kiecker, himself a former inspector who was only recently appointed to the FSIS administrator position, choked up while struggling to respond to questions. 

“We’re doing everything we possibly can,” he said.