The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it would allow pork processors like Tyson, Smithfield and Hormel, to speed up production. Worker safety advocates rightly pointed out that faster production line speeds lead to more injuries for meatpacking workers.
Fortunately, the USDA is not the last word on regulating working conditions in meatpacking.
Workers’ Compensation laws
State workers compensation laws make employers bear the costs of work injuries. In Nebraska a packinghouse worker need only show working conditions contributed to their work injury. Nebraska also compensates multi-member injuries based on how the injury impacts a worker’s ability to earn a living in many circumstances. This way of compensating an injury can take into account ability to understand English and size of job market in compensating a work injury. This means meatpacking workers, particularly immigrant workers, exposed to higher line speeds in Nebraska have the opportunity for fair compensation.
Nebraska also enacted a Meatpacking Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2000 to some fanfare. In my experience that law is mostly symbolic. I believe the amendments to Neb. Rev. Stat. 48-121(3), enacted in 2007 which expanded the coverage for multi-member LOEP injuries is substantively more important for meatpacking workers than the meatpacking bill of rigthts.
But workers compensation laws can vary greatly by state. The same packinghouse worker in Kansas would have a more difficult time being compensated fairly for injuries caused by faster line speeds because of major differences between Nebraska and Kansas workers’ compensation law. Kansas workers can only collect workers compensation if they prove their work is a prevailing factor in causing their injury. This is a much tougher standard than the contributing factor required in Nebraska.
Unions are another factor that can help remedy the effects of faster line speeds in pork plants. Meatpacking workers are about eight times more likely to be unionized than the typical private sector employee. In Nebraska, two major pork plants, Smithfield in Crete and Hormel in Fremont are unionized. But not all plants are unionized and union plants may feel pressured to compete with non-union plants regarding line speed.
Meatpackers have pointed out that United States Department of Labor/Occupational Safety Health Administration (DOL/OSHA) is still regulating workplace safety. They have also pointed out that the Obama USDA moved to increase line speed in poultry production in 2014.
It is true the Obama USDA approved faster line speeds for poultry workers, but the Obama DOL was relatively aggressive in protecting poultry workers. The Trump DOL has been less aggressive in enforcing workplace safety rules. I would imagine they will become even less aggressive now that Eugene Scalia has been confirmed as Secretary of Labor.
Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice, argued against an OSHA ergonomics rule proposed by the Clinton administration which likely would have prevented many overuse injuries. The younger Scalia’s bid for Labor Secretary was supported by high profile legal scholar and Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein. Sunstein’s support of Scalia shows the DC legal establishment is ambiguous at best, hostile at worst to federal regulation of workplace safety.
If Donald Trump wins a second term, the DOL will likely turn a blind eye to the occupational effects of faster line speeds signed off on by the USDA. If the Democrats take over in 2021, it’s harder to know what will happen.
Some pundits think a Democratic president would be more aggressive in defending labor and employment rights. Steven Greenhouse seems to be particularly optimistic about the plans of the major Democratic candidates. I would note that Greenhouse doesn’t seem to have factored in workplace safety issues in his grades of the candidates. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the Democratic presidential primary right now. I hope any future Democratic administration has a better record on workplace safety than the Obama administration did.