When ‘Essential’ Means ‘Expendable’: Connecting the Dots Between Back-to-Work Orders and Spread of the Coronavirus
By Matthew Freeman, Center for Progressive Reform
In the latest episode of CPR Board President Rob Verchick’s Connect the Dots podcast, he and CPR Member Scholars Michael Duff and Thomas McGarity explore worker safety issues in the era of the coronavirus.
McGarity begins the conversation with the story of Annie Grant, a 15-year veteran of the packing line at a Tyson Food poultry processing plant in Camilla, Georgia. One morning in late March, weeks after the nation had awakened to the danger of the coronavirus and states had begun locking down, she felt feverish. When her children urged her to stay home rather than work with a fever on the chilled poultry line, she told them that the company insisted that she continue to work. Furthermore, Tyson was offering a $500 bonus to employees if they worked for three months without missing a day. So, she went in to work, where she labored shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other workers slicing chicken carcasses – thousands of them a day. She soon became too ill to continue, checked herself into a hospital, and later died of COVID-19. Two of her co-workers died of the same disease within days. Tyson later implemented social distancing measures, installed dividers between stations, slowed production lines, and took employee temperatures before allowing them into the plant.
Those steps could and should have been taken long before, but Tyson had other priorities. Vice President Pence had told poultry workers that they were part of the nation’s critical infrastructure and needed to continue to work. And there was money on the line.
Grant, McGarity observed, was in a position many American workers find themselves in right now. They can go to work and risk their lives, or they can stay home and risk losing their jobs. With meatpacking plants ordered open by President Trump, workers who stay home to stay safe could lose both their jobs and their unemployment checks.
Now, to compound the problem, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the White House are moving to pass legislation that would insulate Tyson and other companies from liability for failing to provide a safe workplace – thus disincentivizing them to take reasonable measures if it costs them more than they care to pay. The clear message: Money first, workers second.
Duff brings not just his experience as a law professor to the issue, but his years as a Teamster. He describes in specific terms the safety shortcuts inherent in some blue-collar jobs – lack of control over physical space, work occurring in close quarters with others, and working at a fixed and often too fast speed.
This is Verchick’s second Connect the Dots episode focused on the coronavirus. Last month, he interviewed Dr. Andrew Duxbury, a Birmingham, Alabama, geriatrician and professor of medicine, about the unique challenges posed by the pandemic. Verchick and Duxbury are old friends, and that comes through in the conversation, particularly when the conversation turns to Duxbury’s work in local theater. You can listen or download that conversation here.