Statement of Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen
Note: On Tuesday evening, the president signed an executive order broadly directing the secretary of agriculture to take steps to keep meat and poultry processing facilities operating, despite outbreaks of COVID-19 in plants around the country. That same day, the president acknowledged that the food supply is not currently threatened and announced that he was taking action to reduce the “liability” of the industry.
Also last night, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued an “enforcement guidance” that challenges the authority of state and local governments to issue safety rules and stay-at-home rules and tells processing plants to follow only voluntary federal guidelines.
Safe practices, not immunity from liability, are the best way to protect the economy, businesses and workers. Yet the president is putting the lives of meatpacking workers, who already suffer some of the highest rates of occupational illness and injury, behind the profits of the large companies that dominate the meatpacking industry.
The poultry and meat industry has disingenuously raised the specter of a food shortage to scare Americans. In fact, the companies want the federal government to ensure they won’t be held liable for putting workers at risk if they continue to operate, full speed ahead, during the pandemic.
The text of the April 28 executive order does not address liability, however, and the Defense Production Act does not give the president authority to address liability. As courts and previous administrations have said, the Defense Production Act does not authorize anyone performing under contracts issued pursuant to the act or otherwise to violate federal or state law, including state tort law.
The DOL guidance issued last night does address liability. The department urges plants, if they are later sued because their actions cause workers or the members of the public to get sick, to assert compliance with the guidance as a defense. Indeed, the department invites companies to ask it to file briefs on their behalf in individual cases to help them avoid liability for causing illness.
Eliminating corporate accountability is not a solution to the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes.