AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Members of Congress called for better protection of workers in meatpacking plants in a tele-townhall hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens on Monday, May 4.
U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro said all workers in these plants, including immigrants, need more protective equipment.
“These companies were not giving their workers any kind of protective gear. Some of the companies that some of the plants, they weren’t giving a mask, they weren’t giving them gloves,” Castro said. “They weren’t allowing them to be distance enough from their co-workers to avoid the transmission of the coronavirus.”
LULAC CEO Sindy Benavides said many Latinos do not have the option to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every single day, five out of six Latinos have to leave their houses to go to work and get paid. Five out of six Latinos every single day, are sacrificing their lives to make sure that America keeps running,” Benavides explained.
In addition to protective equipment, U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgrenif also called for better access to healthcare.
“You’re going to say, ‘You’re an essential worker, but we’re going to preclude you from getting the health care you need — once we’ve insisted that you put yourself in a hazardous working spot,’ that’s that’s indefensible, and we need to make sure that that gets changed,” Rep. Lofgrenif said.
Rep. Castro said issues at meatpacking plants have been around long before the pandemic began, but COVID-19 has shone a light on some injustices.
“For years, these companies have known that they’re employing a very vulnerable people who don’t have a lot of political or economic power, who can’t easily change the circumstances of their employee. And because of that, they’ve often taken advantage of these people. And it’s time for Congress to do something about it,” Rep. Castro said.
U.S. Representative Filemon Vela said more testing is still needed not only in areas seeing a surge of cases, but for all essential workers.
“If you’re going to use the Defense Production Act, it ought to be done to create testing in this country that everybody can get tested,” Rep. Vela said. “The issue of immigration status really doesn’t just go to the point of meatpacking workers, but for all essential workers — whether it be in health care, grocery, utilities, farm working, you name it.”
Governor Greg Abbott said in an interview Friday, every worker at a plant north of Amarillo in Moore County will be tested. The meatpacking plant saw a surge of cases at the end of April, and now the federal government is stepping in to help with a strike force.
“That’s one of the strategies. And that is, to test everyone in that meatpacking plant and then make sure we have the appropriate isolation standards to prevent exposure to others who don’t have COVID-19,” Governor Abbott explained.
The Governor also said a plan is underway to implement social distancing and make the workplace safer for the employees.
“They are working as we speak on safer strategies such as separation strategies at the meatpacking plant, other devices to make sure that as they go about their work process they will reduce the possibility of transmitting COVID-19,” Gov. Abbott said Friday.
Rep. Vela also said the federal government is supporting the employers of these facilities, over the employees, specifically referencing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Last week, OSHA sent out some guidance that essentially put them in a position where they’re suggesting that they’re going to take positions that would protect the employer versus the employee,” Rep. Vela said.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden also took part in the town hall Monday, saying he has suggested several ways to help all frontline workers, including those working in meatpacking facilities.
“One of the statistics we can’t lose here is that 52% of the frontline meatpacking workers are Latino. One quarter of 25% are African Americans. And 45% of those folks live below the poverty level for a family of four,” Biden said.
“We can be in a position where we can provide free cost for COVID treatment regardless their insurance, or regardless of immigration status period. We can provide paid sick leave for all workers,” Biden said, adding that he also proposed a $13 wage increase for all frontline workers.