Labor advocates and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for COVID-19 that likely would require employers to adopt programs to prevent transmission in their workplaces.

Their recommendation came at a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Tuesday that was long on criticism of the meatpacking industry, where high levels of COVID-19 last spring forced shutdowns at some plants. According to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, which has been tracking cases at meatpacking and food processing plants, 57,512 meatpacking workers have contracted COVID-19 and 284 have died. The North American Meat Institute, which represents meatpackers, recently pointed to data showing a drop in cases at its facilities and attributed the drops, which also occur as case totals decrease around the country, to safety protections instituted at the facilities. “The latest analysis of independent data reveals that COVID-19 infection rates among meat and poultry workers are more than five times lower than in the general U.S. population, 95% lower than peak case rates in the sector from May 2020,” NAMI reported. 

DeLauro, chairwoman of the committee, and witness Iris Figueroa, director of economic and environmental justice at Farmworker Justice, also emphasized the risks of COVID-19 and heat stress to farmworkers.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order Jan. 21 requiring OSHA to decide by March 15 whether to issue an ETS.

Former Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Carmen Rottenberg, who started a consulting firm after leaving federal service last year, defended the industry and said it’s essential that workers get vaccinated. Debbie Berkowitz, worker safety and health program director at the National Employment Law Project, and Figueroa both said, however, that while vaccinations are essential, they are not a substitute for strong workplace protections.

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