Charlie Neibergall / AP

Biden Administration Presses an Industry to Require Masks, Citing Concern for Federal Inspectors

Industry and Republican senators accuse enforcement agency of “federal overreach.”

The Biden administration is now requiring employees at meat processing plants to wear masks when government inspectors are present, providing a safety measure the federal workers have long requested while angering industry representatives and Republican lawmakers. 

The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service instituted the policy late last month, applying the mandate to any area deemed to have “substantial” or “high” levels of COVID-19 spread. The inspection service said it is required to protect its workers from unsafe conditions and while it cannot directly abate hazardous conditions, it does maintain the right to withdraw its employees from those environments. If the inspection service removes all inspectors from meat, poultry or egg plants, they are effectively shut down. 

Federal Food Safety Inspection Service managers have been reaching out to plants to notify them of the policy change, which went into effect Aug. 25. Any establishment not in compliance would receive a notice from FSIS management and inspectors would no longer go to the facility. Guidance that has gone out to employees in the field instructed them to walk out of any facility giving them trouble with mask wearing enforcement. 

The USDA agency has struggled since the outset of the pandemic to keep its employees safe, particularly as outbreaks raged at plants last year. FSIS initially barred its own employees from wearing masks, fearing it would cause panic at the plants they inspect. The agency then allowed employees to wear them if plant supervisors signed off, before ultimately requiring the face coverings. Inspectors also questioned the inspection service’s decision last 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.

Employees further expressed anger when President Trump issued an executive order aiming to reopen all closed meat plants, noting they had received no information from USDA about how the department would ensure their safety at reopened plants that had become COVID-19 hotspots. Late last year, employees raised concerns that FSIS was not providing access to COVID-19 tests, inspectors were expected to continue working through exposures and information about where cases cropped up ceased. They also lamented that they had no authority to enforce rules about mask wearing for plant employees. 

Now that the Biden administration is providing such enforcement, the meat processing industry is raising its own complaints. 

Chris Young, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, said in a recent letter to members that his group opposes the mandate and would continue to engage FSIS and the Biden administration to seek a reversal. Young told Government Executive, however, the administration made clear there was “no room for compromise.” A small number of plants have faced suspensions, Young said, while others have opted to take a voluntary, 120-day pause from USDA inspections that requires any meat processed at their facilities be marked as not for sale. 

The difficulty with the masks, Young said, is that temperatures can reach 90 degrees and workers are spraying down hot animals with 180 degree water. Breathing in the masks in those conditions is difficult, he said, as is keeping them clean. He added the plants are facing a tough labor market and do not want to lose any workers. 

Paula Schelling, an inspector for 32 years and head of the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents 6,500 FSIS employees who report to every plant in the country, praised the Biden administration for implementing the new policy. 

“We see that as a very positive thing,” Schelling said. She added it had created a hostile work environment in some cases in which plant workers blamed federal personnel for having to wear the masks, but Food Safety Inspection Service supervisors quickly dealt with those issues. 

The meat processing association appeared to find some success at least in taking the issue to Congress, as several Republican senators have sent a letter to FSIS accusing it of “federal overreach” and questioning its authority to issue the mask mandate. 

Several plants have reached out to the senators to inform them that “they have been forced to shut down or are fearful they will soon be shut down for reasons wholly unrelated to compliance with laws, rules, or regulations enforced by FSIS,” the eight Republican senators, led by Sen. Ron Johnson, Wis., said. “Given the nature of constant presence of FSIS inspectors at facilities like meat packing and poultry processing plants, this notice seems to be a backdoor maneuver to regulate the internal policies of private businesses and potentially set a precedent for mandatory vaccinations of employees of private business.” 

The senators asked FSIS for the legal authority under which it issued its notice, the number of facilities from which it has so far withdrawn inspection, whether unions were involved in the decision making, if officials took into consideration any economic impacts and if any vaccine requirements for plant employees are under consideration. 

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