(UNDATED) – Tuesday, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and five of its local unions represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group filed a new federal lawsuit to end the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers allowing poultry plants to increase production line speeds and further endanger workers already facing elevated risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. UFCW represents 1.3 million workers, including more than 17,900 Indiana workers in meatpacking and other essential businesses.
The plaintiffs argue that the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) waiver program should be set aside and 10 currently active waivers should be voided. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges that the USDA failed to follow required procedures and ignored the agency’s own rules and policies when it adopted the waiver program.
“America’s poultry workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic since day one, putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure our families have the food we need during this crisis,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “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. This lawsuit will help to finally stop this dangerous corporate giveaway from the USDA. Now more than ever, we must put the safety of frontline workers and our country’s food supply first.”
The five local unions who are plaintiffs in this case – UFCW Local 227, UFCW Local 1529, UFCW Local 1995, UFCW Local 2008 and Retail, Wholesale And Department Store Union – Mid South Council – represent more than 35,000 poultry workers at processing plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi and Missouri.
“We urged the USDA to consider how dangerous these line speed increases are, especially with COVID-19 already putting these workers at risk, but they refused,” said UFCW Local 227 Union President Bob Blair. “We had no choice but to go to court to stop these waivers that are endangering the health and livelihoods of thousands of UFCW members across the country. Our members, who have worked in the industry for years, know firsthand that these line speed increases make both the food they make and the plants they work in less safe. It’s time for the USDA to listen to workers who are the first-hand experts in these plants every day, instead of big corporations just looking to make even more money during this pandemic.”
UFCW recently announced that in the first 100 days of COVID-19, there have already been at least 65 meatpacking worker deaths and 14,214 meatpacking workers infected or exposed. April saw the biggest spike in new COVID-19 meatpacking cases with 8,632 workers infected or exposed. May was the deadliest month for the industry with 38 worker deaths last month alone.
UFCW has been a leading national voice calling on the USDA to strengthen oversight in meatpacking and increase safeguards to protect workers and ensure the food supply is secure. In July 2020, UFCW announced its support for new legislation in Congress to roll back dangerous line speed increases across the meatpacking industry. In October 2019, UFCW filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the USDA’s rule allowing pork plants to increase line speeds.
Poultry Worker Safety
Poultry processing poses a wide range of risks to workers, including musculoskeletal problems – such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and “trigger finger” – and acute physical injuries, such as sprains, lacerations, contusions and amputations. Federal and private research, as well as the experiences of poultry workers, show that an increase in work pace caused by faster line speeds increases the risk of injury to workers.
USDA Regulation of Poultry Industry
In April 2020 alone, FSIS approved 15 waivers allowing poultry plants to increase their maximum line speed. These waivers do not protect our food supply, but they create greater risk of worker injury, including increased risk of catching and spreading the virus as workers are forced to crowd together to keep pace with faster processing speeds.
In 2014, FSIS adopted a rule that set the maximum line speed in poultry plants at 140 birds per minute. At that time, FSIS acknowledged the extensive rulemaking record demonstrating that faster line speeds can increase the harm to poultry plant workers. In 2017, the National Chicken Council, a trade association that lobbies for the chicken industry, asked FSIS to lift line speed limits entirely. Although FSIS declined that request, it stated that it would grant more waivers that allow plants to operate at up to 175 birds per minute.
FSIS announced the waiver program in early 2018 but did not follow proper procedures when adopting that program. The Administrative Procedure Act requires an agency to give the public prior notice and an opportunity to comment before adopting a new rule. Instead, FSIS created the program behind closed doors. FSIS justified the program as a way to allow plants to experiment with new technology – even though increasing line speed is not a new technology. FSIS failed to adequately explain why the new waiver program was needed or why the program ignores the worker safety concerns that FSIS had previously acknowledged.