By SIYA SCINDIA, senior
ON SEPTEMBER 8, 1950, the Defense Production Act was enacted in response to the start of the Korean War. The act gives the federal government more discretion to direct and expedite industrial production during national emergencies. Though traditionally invoked during wartime, the Defense Production Act is now being used to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, but not in the way that we would expect. On April 28, President Trump signed an executive order using the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open during the pandemic. Trump called meat processing plants “critical infrastructure,” and his executive order is designed to avoid shortages of beef, pork, and chicken.
What Trump failed to consider, however, is how his use of the Defense Production Act could have devastating impacts on American workers. Before the issuing of Trump’s executive order, 22 meat processing plants across the country had already shut down due to the pandemic, and 6,500 plant workers had already died from or been exposed to the virus. Smithfield Foods closed its pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota after more than 600 workers tested positive for the virus. Tyson Foods, the owner of the biggest processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, shut down after more than 180 workers tested positive. Now that meat processing plants are being forced to re-open, however, thousands of workers are at higher risk. Trump’s order overrode the guidelines of states and plants who know themselves that it is not safe enough to re-open yet, especially considering the subpar conditions that employees are exposed to at work. Meat processing plants are known for crowded lines and break rooms, poor ventilation systems, and working employees shoulderto-shoulder with limited breaks. Many plants have also been facing massive personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages recently. The CEO of Tyson Foods told CNN that the company is doing “everything [it] can to make sure [it takes] care of [its] team members.” But working conditions are clearly not safe enough, as workers at meat processing plants across the country are continuing to stage walkouts over unsatisfactory health and safety standards. By using the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open, Trump is essentially forcing workers to choose between their income and their health—a choice that they shouldn’t have to make.
What is even more cause for concern is that President Trump has said that he will shield meatpacking companies from legal liabilities as long as they follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Most plant facilities could not even keep up with general health and safety standards before the virus emerged, so Trump’s assumption that standards could meet expectations in the face of a pandemic is premature and unreasonable. By making such an assumption, Trump has once again proven that he chooses to ignore the harsh realities that workers face and prioritize corporate interests over human lives. While he has proven that our country’s economy is his priority, he has failed to realize that our nation’s economic health relies on the physical health of our essential workers. When workers—the backbone of our economy—fall sick and are unable to work, our economy will suffer even more than it has already. If President Trump were truly concerned about our economy, he would show concern for those who keep it running.
It is certainly hard to ignore another disturbing but possible reason Trump has not made the health and safety of workers a priority: the fact that many workers at meat processing plants are people of color. In Iowa, according to the state government’s data, African Americans and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by high rates of coronavirus, as a result of their work in meat processing plants, when compared to US Census Bureau data on their representation in the state. For example, Latinos comprise 6% of the Iowa population, but 17% of the state’s confirmed cases. The numbers for African Americans show a similar pattern; African Americans make up 3% of the Iowa population, but 9% of the state’s confirmed cases. President Trump has shown contempt and disregard toward ethnic minorities in the past, so it comes as no surprise that he has failed to recognize that his decision to keep plants open could have grave repercussions on minority groups and immigrant populations.
What we need from the White House is action that protects workers, not action that protects industry at the expense of its workers. When our workers are no longer able to do their jobs, the industry will suffer like never before. The Defense Production Act could be an effective tool to prevent that from happening, but right now, it is being underutilized. The act should be used to ramp up production of PPE and testing kits—not meat. On April 11, it was used to increase the production of N95 masks, and on April 29, it paved the way for plans to make testing swabs more accessible. Still, millions of dollars in federal funding that could be used to make products that keep medical professionals and everyday Americans safe remain unused. Nine Democratic Senators have already written a letter to Trump encouraging him to expedite the manufacturing of PPE and testing kits. What’s left to be seen is whether that will translate into swift, decisive action on the President’s end—action that effectively uses the Defense Production Act in an unprecedented crisis.