“They don’t want to know,” one employee says of his agency's attitude toward coronavirus.
Federal inspectors at meat processing plants across the country—once among the hotbeds for the novel coronavirus—are being told to remain at work after exposures to COVID-19, according to employees there, who have raised renewed concerns their agency is not helping them get tested to prevent virus spread.
Several plants were forced to close earlier this year due to outbreaks among both the company workers and federal inspectors, leading President Trump to sign an executive order seeking to compel the plants to stay open amid the pandemic. The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service took some steps to protect workers after largely declining to change its operations during the outbreaks, eventually giving employees personal protective equipment and installing plexiglass between its staff and the processing lines they inspect.
Employees now say, however, those measures were never adequate and are no longer being universally implemented. This has sparked fears among inspectors, who raised concerns that the same lax standards that led to widespread outbreaks and closures in the spring are creeping back into their workplaces.
“They didn’t take any precautions,” Anthony Vallone, an inspector in Illinois, said of a recent facility he visited. “No temperature checks. They didn’t do anything to mitigate [risks].”
Employees expressed anger earlier this year about Trump’s executive order looking to reopen facilities, noting they had received no information from USDA about how the department would ensure their safety at reopened plants that had become coronavirus hotspots. FSIS is now requiring all inspectors to wear masks, telling employees those who do not will face discipline. The mandate, issued two months into the pandemic, marked a complete reversal for FSIS, which initially barred employees from wearing masks out of concern it would cause panic at the plants they inspect. The agency then allowed employees to wear them if plant supervisors signed off. Inspectors also questioned FSIS’ decision earlier this year to move employees from one hotspot to the next in an effort to mitigate the impacts of staffing shortages, suggesting the workers were serving as vectors through which the virus was spreading.
Inspectors also told Government Executive that FSIS, which did not respond to a request for comment, is no longer notifying employees of where cases crop up or how many workers have tested positive. Employees are on their own to learn about positive cases at their plants and bring it to their supervisors’ attention, though the news is typically met with indifference.
“They’re still trying to avoid testing,” Vallone said. He added that managers will tell employees to let the agency know if they get tested, but this falls short of encouraging the practice. “They don’t want to know,” he 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, said social distancing is not possible at slaughterhouses and processing facilities. Worse, she said, is that the inspectors have no authority to instruct company workers to comply with rules about wearing masks and shields. She echoed Vallone's concerns about testing.
“They’re on their own,” she said. “For an inspector who has had a direct contact, there’s no effort to get a test.”
Vallone said employee concerns are starting to spike along with COVID-19 cases around the country.
“They didn’t take what they should have from the first wave,” he said of FSIS. “Now there is a higher wave. There are quite a few older inspectors I work with. They’re concerned for their lives.”
Some employees have decided their job is not worth the risk, exhausting leave options or looking for new lines of work. A former FSIS inspector speaking on the condition of anonymity said she left her job in July due COVID-19 concerns.
“I decided it was not worth it,” the former employee said.
Schelling said a “status quo” had set in among the workforce in the late summer following Trump’s order, as cases waned and the agency took some steps to stop the spread. With protocols no longer being strictly followed and cases spiking, however, employees are once again speaking out.
“The morale is, ultimately, getting low again,” Schelling said. “The fear is back.”