Unions sue USDA over line speed waivers

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and five of its local unions, filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), seeking to end the agency’s issuance of line speed waivers.

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BCFC | Bigstockphoto.com
BCFC | Bigstockphoto.com

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and five of its local unions, filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), seeking to end the agency’s issuance of line speed waivers.

The lawsuit, filed July 28 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claims that when the USDA grants line speed waivers, it elevates the risks that poultry plant workers face on the job. The plaintiffs assert that plant workers are already putting their well-being in jeopardy by working amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its suit, the plaintiff unions argue that the waiver program should be discontinued and that 10 currently active waivers should be voided. The suit makes special mention of waivers that were allegedly granted to five Tyson Foods facilities and five Wayne Farms facilities, allowing those plants to increase their maximum line speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.

They allege that the USDA failed to follow required procedures and ignored its own rules and policies when it adopted the waiver program.

“America’s poultry workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic since day one, putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure our families have the food we need during this crisis,”  UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a press release. “As COVID-19 continues to infect thousands of meatpacking workers, it is stunning that USDA is further endangering these workers by allowing poultry companies to increase line speeds to dangerous new levels that increase the risk of injury and make social distancing next to impossible. This lawsuit will help to finally stop this dangerous corporate giveaway from the USDA. Now more than ever, we must put the safety of frontline workers and our country’s food supply first.”

USDA does not comment on pending litigation.

Local UFCW unions participating in the lawsuit are based in Louisville, Kentucky; Cordova, Tennessee; Hermitage, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Birmingham, Alabama.

NCC comments

The National Chicken Council (NCC) said it has been proven that plants with line speeds of 175 birds per minute can still operate safely.

“Line speeds of up to 175 birds per minute have been around for 25 years and the section of the plant in question is almost entirely automated these days. A pilot program using almost two dozen chicken processing plants was initiated under the Clinton administration allowing line speeds of up to 175 bpm. The modernized system has been studied, debated, prevailed in court cases, and has been reviewed in depth for more than two decades to assure its effectiveness in further modernizing chicken inspection while improving food safety and protecting workers. In fact, while the industry has been safely increasing line speeds over the past 25 years, the poultry industry’s injury and illness rate has fallen 84 percent, according to the Department of Labor,” NCC spokesman Tom Super stated.

“There is no data or evidence to suggest workers in plants operating their evisceration line at 175 are any more susceptible to the virus. Again, the line speeds in question are a part of the line that is almost entirely automated in poultry processing. Regardless, the virus doesn’t discriminate based on line speed. Whether plants are operating at 125, 140 or 175, plants have taken every precaution to help keep workers safe, including: social distancing, temperature checks, installing plastic barriers between work stations where social distancing is challenging, providing masks, face shields and gloves for workers, staggering shifts, making breakrooms available outside, multiple hand sanitizing stations, extra cleaning and sanitation of the plant, educating employees about steps to take at home to keep healthy, encouraging sick or vulnerable employees to stay home with paid sick leave, and testing for the virus.”

 Line speed legislation

The lawsuit was filed on the same day Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, introduced a bill that would suspend all current and future USDA line speed waivers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill, known as The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, was co-sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California; Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Kamala Harris, D-California; Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut.

Earlier in July, a similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio; Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, and Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi.

Earlier lawsuit

The USDA line speed waiver program was also challenged in another lawsuit filed in February. That lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court, Northern District of California, San Francisco Division, lists the  Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Animal Outlook, Mercy for Animals, Government Accountability Project and Marin Humane as the plaintiffs. 

View our continuing coverage of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

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