EDITOR'S NOTE: Our esteemed and beloved colleague and fierce protector of Americans' food safety, Tony Corbo, passed away in late August of 2020. This was his last article written before his passing, published posthumously. His voice is deeply missed, and we are grateful for one last opportunity to showcase it.
As the Trump administration and Congress continue to fight over further relief to millions of out of work Americans who are facing eviction and utility shutoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Senate Republicans and their corporate henchmen have been holding up an agreement over their insistence that a final bill contain a liability shield — protections for corporations against lawsuits brought by workers and families who were harmed by companies’ inaction to protect them from the virus. Since these workers were deemed “essential” and forced to work during the pandemic, it has become apparent that very little was done to protect them from the spread of the virus.
The Republican liability shield plan would:
- Pre-empt suits under state laws by creating exclusive federal causes of action for personal injuries related to coronavirus exposure and medical care for COVID-19;
- Shield employers from agency investigation and civil liability for some failures to comply with health standards and guidance, as well as liability related to workplace COVID-19 testing;
- Allow defendants to be found liable only if they commit “gross negligence and intentional misconduct,” shielding unreasonable and negligent conduct;
- Require plaintiffs to meet very high evidentiary thresholds to establish liability;
- Limit compensatory damages to economic losses in almost all cases and require plaintiffs to prove willful misconduct to obtain punitive damages.
This bill has been endorsed by the American Bakers Association, American Truckers Association, International Dairy Foods Association, National Association of Chain Drug Stores, National Association of Convenience Stores, National Chicken Council, National Grocers Association, North American Meat Institute and United Fresh Produce Association.
The Staggering Number Of Families Who May Wish To Seek Damages Is Still Growing
Since the Centers for Disease Control has been made toothless by the Trump administration and does not have an accurate count on the number of deaths and illnesses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in food processing, we have been forced to rely on non-profit organizations such as Food and Environment Reporting Service (FERN) for those data. According to FERN:
As of August 11 at 12pm ET, at least 732 meatpacking and food processing plants (471 meatpacking and 261 food processing) and 93 farms and production facilities have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. At least 54,852 workers (40,517 meatpacking workers, 8,483 food processing workers, and 5,852 farmworkers) have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 237 workers (189 meatpacking workers, 34 food processing workers, and 14 farmworkers) have died.
In meatpacking, several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of workers who have died because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the companies sued are the biggest players in meat and poultry processing: Tyson, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield, National Beef Packing and Central Valley Meat Company. In response to these lawsuits, many of these companies have argued that it is hard to determine how workers got sick from the virus, so they should not be held culpable for their deaths. Because many of these companies have not been forthcoming about the illnesses incurred by their workers, and because their political allies have hidden public health data from the public, they should not be able to hide from their shortcomings in protecting workers in their facilities.
The Collusion In The Meat Industry To Hide COVID-19 Diagnoses Is Just Coming To Light
Meanwhile, alarming information has emerged illustrating how the collusion between the meat industry and their political allies has hidden the truth. Through records requests, the Associated Press recently determined that the COVID-19 outbreak in a Tyson pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa was much more severe than originally reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health. While Tyson reported to workplace safety inspectors 522 illnesses, including 2 deaths, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported that there were only 221 cases in the plant. This was just the latest example of data manipulation by the state of Iowa, whose governor, Kim Reynolds, has been a strong proponent of keeping meat plants open in the middle of the pandemic. This is in spite of claims of a nationwide “meat shortage” being exposed as false. She also rammed through the Iowa legislature a bill that would provide liability shields to industry during the pandemic.
On August 10, a television station in St. Paul, Minnesota reported that JBS resisted the testing of its employees at its Worthington pork processing facility when it became apparent there was a major COVID-19 outbreak spreading through the plant and the state and local health departments misled the public about the extent of the outbreak.
On August 11, Carolina Public Press exposed how local health departments withheld information about the magnitude of the COVID outbreaks in meatpacking and poultry plants in North Carolina, forcing the state health department not to disclose illness data.
We Need You To Reach Out To Democratic Leaders And Urge Them To Reject This Shield
Mitch McConnell has made the liability shield a priority in the Senate's COVID relief negotiations. While Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have said they will resist including such a provision in the legislation, they both need to hear from the public to ensure they remain firm in their resistance. An unacceptable COVID relief bill cannot pass without Democratic support in the House and Senate. Schumer and Pelosi have all the power they need to prevent a liability shield from coming to fruition. They must leverage it.
Contact Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Schumer and tell them that the corporations cannot be let off the hook for their shameful disregard for the safety of their workers.