Today, a group of 36 Democratic Senators led by U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, urged Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the Trump Administration to take action to help ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply and protect essential workers in the food supply chain.
“It is vital that we do everything we can to protect food supply workers,” wrote the Senators. “Breakdowns in the food supply chain could have significant economic impacts for both consumers and agricultural producers. It is also imperative that precautions are taken to ensure the stability and safety of our food supply.”
There have been numerous reports of essential workers in meatpacking plants, processing facilities, farms, grocery stores, and markets falling ill from COVID-19. Some workers have reportedly felt pressured to go to work even when feeling sick. There are also serious concerns about the health of farmworkers who often work, live, and travel in close proximity, making social distancing very difficult.
“The severe shortages of adequate COVID-19 testing capability and personal protective equipment are exacerbating these problems,” wrote the Senators. “Lack of access to tests and personal protective equipment leaves essential food supply workers at even higher risk and makes the virus more likely to spread, harming more workers and further damaging our food supply chain.”
The Senators urged the White House and federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments and the private sector to take aggressive action to protect essential workers and the food supply from further damage. The Senators also asked a series of questions about the actions being taken and coordination with the food industry.
In addition to Senator Stabenow, the letter was signed by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Robert Casey (D-Penn.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Angus King (I-Maine), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Jackie Rosen (D-Nev.).
The letter was sent to Vice President Pence, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Food and Drug Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.
The full text of the letter is below. A PDF of the letter is available here.
Dear Vice President Pence, Secretary Perdue, Commissioner Hahn, Administrator Wheeler, Acting Secretary Wolf:
We write today to inquire about the actions you are taking to ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply and protect our essential federal and private sector food supply chain workforce. There have been numerous reports of essential workers in meatpacking plants, processing facilities, farms, grocery stores, and markets falling ill from COVID-19. Other sources have reported that employee absences are high as people fear going into work due to the threat of infection. Some workers have reportedly felt pressured to work even when feeling sick. There are also serious concerns about the health of farmworkers who plant and harvest our crops and often work, live, and travel in close proximity, making social distancing very difficult.
The severe shortages of adequate COVID-19 testing capability and personal protective equipment are exacerbating these problems. Lack of access to tests and personal protective equipment leaves essential food supply workers at even higher risk and makes the virus more likely to spread, harming more workers and further damaging our food supply chain. Beyond the risk of infection, the lack of personal protective equipment is also harmful to farmworkers who apply pesticides and lack basic protections.
It is vital that we do everything we can to protect food supply workers and federal employees from COVID-19 infection. Breakdowns in the food supply chain could have significant economic impacts for both consumers and agricultural producers. It is also imperative that precautions are taken to ensure the stability and safety of our food supply.
During this public health crisis, the White House and your agencies must coordinate with state and local governments and the private sector to take aggressive action to protect essential workers in the food supply chain. We need bold action and creative solutions, including greatly increased testing and tracing of those exposed to the virus in order to stop the spread. This is critically important to protect our essential workforce, our food supply chain, our agricultural economy, and rural America from further damage. We ask you to respond to the following questions by April 24, 2020:
- What are your plans for and what actions have you taken to help ensure the safety of essential food supply chain workers? In the event that essential food supply chain workers, including all farmworkers, contract COVID-19, what are the preparedness and response plans and actions to control the outbreak, ensure treatment of workers, and ensure that our food supply is maintained?
- USDA’s coronavirus website instructs the food industry to follow protocols set by local and state health departments for guidance about its business operations.
- How are your agencies coordinating with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure that employers know what is necessary to protect their essential food supply chain workers from COVID-19?
- A clear safety and health standard applicable to this novel virus would ensure employers understand what is necessary to keep essential food supply chain workers healthy so they can continue to work to keep the food chain strong. Have your agencies asked Secretary Scalia to use his existing authorities under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to ensure employers of essential food supply chain workers institute necessary safety and health accommodations to deal with this virus? If not, why not?
- What are your agencies doing to create consistency regarding recommendations from federal agencies that address issues related to monitoring of symptoms, sanitation practices, social distancing, personal protective equipment standards, and communication requirements?
- Has the federal government worked with states or the food industry to develop contingency plans or guidance on how to adjust supply chains or move workforce capacity to other areas to address any personnel shortages?
- What concerns and unmet needs have you heard from the food supply industry regarding protection of these essential workers? What are you doing to address shortages of personal protective equipment for private sector essential food supply chain workers?
- What actions have you taken to make COVID-19 testing readily available to essential food supply chain workers?
- Have you taken any actions to work with state and local governments and industry partners to find alternative housing options for essential food supply chain workers who have been infected by or exposed to COVID-19 to help stop it from spreading to others?
- Protecting the health and safety of USDA inspectors from COVID-19 is critically important.
- How many USDA inspectors have been infected by COVID-19?
- Have infections of inspectors caused any slowing in or reduction of inspections or production?
- Has USDA appropriately notified its personnel of the new COVID paid sick and family leave polices recently enacted by Congress?
- USDA briefed congressional staff and said it has been unable to supply masks for all of its food inspectors and has instead offered to reimburse its employees for making or purchasing their own masks. What is USDA doing to supply all FSIS inspectors, APHIS inspectors, and AMS essential personnel with appropriate personal protective equipment and what is the timeframe when USDA will be able to provide this equipment?
We thank you for your immediate attention to these questions.