Union Sues to Block Trump Waivers for Faster Poultry-Line Speeds

By Mike Dorning | July 29, 2020

A food workers’ union filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday to block Trump administration waivers that allow poultry plants to operate production lines at a faster pace, arguing the higher speeds endanger employees.

The suit challenges the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s waivers, saying the agency ignored concerns that increased speeds would boost the risk of injury for workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and five of its local members said in the compliant that the USDA also violated administrative rules when it issued the waivers.

As meat and poultry producers have been forced to shutter or slow output at plants amid Covid-19 outbreaks, the Trump administration has allowed some poultry processors to run their facilities at faster speeds, a step experts and labor advocates have long said raises the safety risk to workers.

Donald Trump Photographer: Tasos Katopodis/UPI/Bloomberg

“As Covid-19 continues to infect thousands of meatpacking workers, it is stunning that USDA is further endangering these workers by allowing poultry companies to increase line speeds to dangerous new levels that increase the risk of injury and make social distancing next to impossible,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in an emailed statement.

“This lawsuit will help to finally stop this dangerous corporate giveaway from the USDA.”

A spokesman for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service declined to comment, citing a policy against commenting on pending litigation.

America’s meat and poultry plants have been one of the hardest-hit sectors in the covid pandemic. More than 16,200 meat plant workers had tested positive for the virus by the end of May and 86 had died, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that collected data from more than 20 states.

Minority workers have suffered the most. Of the cases that disclosed race and ethnicity, 87% involved minority workers — with employees identified as Hispanic accounting for 56% of infections despite making up less than a third of the overall workforce.

In April, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service allowed five poultry plants — two owned by Tyson Foods Inc., and three by Wayne Farms LLC — to run their slaughter lines at higher speeds. The agency also gave approval to Foster Farms in March.

Plants have to seek permission for the line-speed changes under a USDA program called the New Poultry Inspection Service. While waivers have been available since the program was started in 2018, companies have drawn a backlash by applying for them at a time when many employees are already at risk of getting sick.

Poultry workers suffer from high rates of on-the-job injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome and nerve damage due to the repetitive motions required to do their jobs, a 2015 report from the CDC found. The concern is that faster line speeds will worsen these dangerous conditions.

The program has been controversial since long before the pandemic. Originally proposed under the Obama administration, the line-speed change garnered so much opposition that it was not enacted. The Trump administration’s USDA reversed that decision in 2018.

The case is United Food and Commercial Workers Union v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 20-cv-02045, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia.

–With assistance from Deena Shanker and Lydia Mulvany.

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