Terry H. Schwadron
April 29, 2020
Wait a minute.
House members don’t think it is sufficiently safe to return to work in the Capitol two weeks from now, but Donald Trump thinks it is perfectly okay for meat-cutters to return to work now in plants where coronavirus already is running wild, where workers have died from working side by side without adequate protection?
Let’s try setting aside that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, sees nothing wrong with calling back the 100 senators, and Trump doesn’t even recognize a question about recalling 1,000 West Point cadets to still-virus hot New York just to have them quarantine for 14 days and stand for an hour of a graduation speech.
Indeed, Trump signed an executive order to protect meat-packing companies — and maybe all corporations — from lawsuit in the event that a worker contracts coronavirus during work. But he is unwilling to have OSHA enforce workplace protection rules or to work with governors to issue must-follow safety regulations to these plant owners?
This isn’t about legal protections, Trump, who refuses to wear a mask himself, may as well have said corporations can force employees to shove their faces into buckets of virus — just so long as McDonald’s and supermarkets continue to get their meat shipments without interruption. And the White House kitchen gets its hamburger meet.
This Trump administration is sending us in medical and moral loop-de-loops to protect the economy. Even passing a million-case mark for the pandemic in the United States apparently is not reason enough to enforce some safety along with market success,
I keep waiting for Trump to note that these problems are more complicated than a slogan will allow.
Keeping the Meat Moving
Trump said he was invoking the Defense Production Act under the order to declare meat plants essential infrastructure that must remain open and keep the nation’s meat supply available. Already, farmers are slaughtering hogs because of shutdowns at several meat-packing plants because of the virus. He said the government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance, though those are words we have heard before concerning hospital workers.
There was, once again, no Plan for practical implementation of worker safety.
Then we heard that Mr. Total Authority was leaving the work of that job to states, before hearing that the White House and Republicans were against reimbursing states for emergency spending to forestall or handle tens of thousands of deaths from a pandemic.
At least 20 meat-packing plants have closed in recent weeks because of disease outbreak, affecting a quarter of available meat processing. Owners warned that the nation’s food supplies were at risk, while unions noted that even bonus payments may not persuade workers to report to production lines without sufficient protection and efforts to do such things as try to put plastic barriers between workers.
And, under Trump, OSHA and the Labor Department have remained all but mum, other than offering guidelines saying wise companies would voluntarily be cleaning and should not fire employees who get sick. OSHA also says that companies should be held blameless for disease outbreaks, an idea that Trump wants negotiated into any next Congressional aid bill.
Of course, everyone outside of the White House said this mess and disease outbreak is exactly what happens if you don’t have an appropriate amount of coronavirus testing in place.
And, Trump’s order leaves meaningless any guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for plants to provide six feet of distance between workers.
A Meat-Packing Parable
The meat-packing case is a forerunner, of course, a tale that should be read as having a moral, like any good fable.
Trump also is rattling off casual suggestions to re-open schools before the nearing end of the school year as if that is something that happens with a switch to “on,” and not a complicated set of state hurdles, teacher and family coordination and the tasks of transportation, food delivery and special arrangements for disabled students. Naturally, only a few states are considering that possibility, while others have said that remote learning could continue into the fall.
Trump also is promoting the premature return of airlines, without consistent guidelines about what protections to invoke on crews or passengers. As a result, each airline has different policies, and, with reduced flights, experiences that may stuff in people in violation of social distancing rules.
Through it all, Trump seems oblivious to what the medical folks keep saying — that there possibly are zillions of us who are carrying coronavirus but not showing symptoms. When Trump trumpets the number of tests available, he skips over the fact that only those who are feeling ill are being tested, a self-selecting, already ailing population. We still don’t have a handle on the various antibody tests or their effectiveness for immunity.
But then, on advice of Dr. Brian Monahan, the House physician, a substantial number of congressmen think it is too early for them to be forced to return to work. Maybe they need a pep talk from Trump and VP Mike Pence, who stubbornly went maskless to talk with recovering patients at the Mayo Clinic in violation of that hospital’s rules.