[Editorial note: This article was originally published by WBLZMedia and is published here with permission from the author and WBLZMedia.]
The Defense Production Act (DPA) is a tool the president has to compel our private industry to produce things for the public good. Not only has Donald Trump failed to use this power to the public benefit, but he is now using it to ensure profits while providing legal immunity to meat processing plants ordered opened via the DPA and with an Executive Order. The reopening of plants where coronavirus has already spread rapidly will force workers into proven deadly conditions that the administration helped create.
Many urged Trump to use the DPA to mandate that industry produce needed personal protection equipment (PPE) for health care workers and for widespread coronavirus testing and supportive supplies for the tests to identify and isolate those affected, which would limit the spread.
The use of the DPA for PPE production would have allowed states to purchase PPE at a fair market price. The lack of an abundant supply of PPE has led to states bidding against each other and using taxpayer money to pay far beyond a reasonable price.
Even when a state has initially succeeded at securing PPE or testing, they have repeatedly seen their supplies taken by federal agencies. The result is that instead of Donald Trump and the federal government using its power to help states, they have actively worked against them resulting in irreparable damage.
More than 60 nurses in the United States have died due to contracting COVID-19, according to National Nurses United (NNU) who represents more than 95,540 nurses in 139 hospitals in 13 states.
The NNU announced on Thursday that nurses will be holding workplace actions on Friday, May 1—International Workers Day, also known as “May Day”— calling for optimal protection.
“Nurses signed up to care for their patients. They did not sign up to sacrifice their lives on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN. “On this day that celebrates the labor movement and working people, union nurses are standing up to demand the protection they need now!”
Despite the continued call for adequate PPE, Donald Trump has turned his attention to assuring meat processing plants will stay open.
Coronavirus spreads most rapidly in facilities where individuals are near one another. Meat processing plants and prisons have proven among the most problematic. Both threaten not only the individuals who inhabit them but their surrounding communities as victims who have contracted the virus return home and move about.
Meat processing plants are often in smaller communities with hospitals that not capable of handling a massive influx of patients. It is in these towns where the fear of overrun hospitals will likely soon be a reality.
Over 6,500 meatpacking workers are diagnosed with coronavirus or are placed into quarantine. At least 20 have already died of the virus, according to Politico.
Actions taken by the Trump Administration directly contributed to the staggering numbers. In April, as the number of Americans infected exponentially grew, the federal government ordered 15 poultry processors waivers to allow poultry plants to process faster, according to USA TODAY.
Working faster meant crowding more workers closer together. As of April 24, plants that received a waiver were at least ten times more likely to have a case of COVID-19 as the meat processing industry as a whole, according to USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
At least 22 facilities processing meat from pork to chicken have closed at some point after clusters of employees tested positive for coronavirus, according to UFCW. Trump is using the Defense Production Act to order the companies to stay open, the Politico article states.
“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” the order says. “Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect on the food supply chain.”
The justification for this order also states a need to protect “the supply of protein.” This argument is without merit, as there are plenty of healthy ways to consume protein that are not from an animal.
Another misleading argument is the assertion that Donald Trump is his asserting his authority over the meat processing companies to protect the public interest. The truth is that the execution of the order is on behalf of meatpacking companies.
Industry leaders have warned that consumers could see meat shortages in a matter of days, according to the Associated Press. Tyson Foods Inc., one of the world’s largest food companies, ran a full-page advertisement in The New York Times and other newspapers Sunday warning, “The food supply chain is breaking.”
“We appreciate the administration’s efforts to help the food supply chain,” Tyson said in a statement following the signing of the executive order. “We remain committed to protecting the safety of our team members as we continue our efforts to keep feeding American families.”
In an apparent attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 in meat processing plants, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) joined forces in studying the problem and making recommendations.
Unfortunately, their conclusions were only recommendations and created no new enforceable rules for the industry. In actuality, the CDC report frequently included language that could easily enable companies to ignore the recommendations altogether. In fact, the Trump administration has made it clear they won’t enforce coronavirus-related safety rules for meat factories making what they determine is a “good faith effort” to keep workers safe, according to Business Insider.
The DPA goes beyond an effort to reopen plants where many people were already stricken by COVID-19. It provides legal protection for the plants from employees if they were to become ill upon returning to work.
Donald Trump described it as a “legal roadblock,” according to the AP. It will “solve any liability problems where there were certain liability problems, and we will be in very good shape.”
Iowa’s Republican Governor Kim Reynolds threatened workers that they will lose their unemployment benefits if they do not return to work. “If you are recalled to work and choose not to return, you may lose eligibility for unemployment benefits in addition to losing your job,” Townsend said. This puts workers in the unimaginable position of having to choose to go back to work in what has already proven to be deadly conditions without any enforcement of guidelines to improve those conditions or lose the ability to provide for their families.
Providing waivers that create unsafe work conditions, not enforcing safer conditions identified by the CDC and OSHA, protecting companies from liability, and forcing workers to return to work in already proven deadly environments are all deliberate political choices.
The combination of those willful acts by the Trump Administration and others will most certainly have a death toll associated with them. And those deaths are on the shoulders of those who used power to promote profit over lives.