Edited June 29 at 1:15 p.m. PST.
For weeks after Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency in March, Smithfield Foods, Inc. refused to provide employees at their Sioux Falls, S.D., pork processing plant with any protective gear or hand sanitizer.
Instead, the company created incentives for sick employees to come to work by giving them “responsibility bonuses,” according to reporting by local news outlet, the Argus Leader. As a result, many workers got sick and spread the virus into the community. The plant quickly became the country’s biggest coronavirus hotspot, linked to more than 640 cases, ultimately forcing Smithfield to temporarily close the plant on April 15.
At another plant in Cudahy, Wis., Smithfield refused to provide workers with masks while requiring them to work elbow-to-elbow. In February, one worker with asthma who requested a mask told the Intercept he was denied one on the grounds that if management gave him one, they would “have to do it for everyone else.”
Employees also allege the company reprimanded workers who tried to wear their own masks, threatening them with suspension. Public health officials later confirmed that at least 85 workers tested positive.
In an email to Ms. from Smithfield’s corporate communications team, Smithfield asserted, “Since they were issued, our COVID-19 processes and protocols have always followed CDC guidance,” and that they have “implemented aggressive measures to protect their [Smithfield employees] health and safety during this pandemic.”
Smithfield also asserted that the “responsibility bonuses” were in no way intended to pressure their employees to come to work while experiencing symptoms: “We are regularly telling employees, in multiple languages, verbally, in print and via an employee communication app, ‘Do not report to work if you are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. You will be paid.'”
But Smithfield workers, many of whom are immigrants and refugees, certainly don’t feel that way. Speaking to the Argus Leader, one said, “I feel like they’re bribing us with money to come to work sick. That’s how you know they don’t care, because they’re forcing people to come to work. People are forcing themselves to come to work even when they’re sick.”
In factories and warehouses, from grocery and retail stores to transportation and delivery companies, many employers across the country have demonstrated a willingness to put their employees’ health and lives at risk to make a profit—companies like Amazon, Costco, Walmart, Door Dash, Uber and Lyft, to name a few.
Despite this rampant irresponsibility, corporate allies in Congress and state houses across the country are introducing bills to immunize corporations from liability for the resulting harm to employees and communities.
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In Congress, Mitch McConnell and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are demanding that a fourth COVID-19 relief package for cities and states grant corporations sweeping immunity for getting their workers sick with COVID-19. They also demand immunity for violating a wide range of other core workplace protections, including violations of workers’ rights to minimum wage, overtime, and the right to not work “off the clock,” protections against disability discrimination, the right to take paid sick days and paid leave under either state laws or the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and other core rights.
And they want even more. Corporate lobbyists are also pressing for state level protections. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) drafted a model immunity bill that they are circulating to state legislatures. Bills granting corporations immunity for getting workers and consumers sick with COVID-19 have already passed in Utah, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, and Wyoming, and have been proposed in at least 10 other states.
After Utah passed a corporate immunity bill barring workers from suing employers, two manufacturing facilities in the state disregarded safety precautions, including by telling employees who tested positive for COVID-19 to report to work before their quarantine periods ended. As a result, at least 68 workers were infected.
Enacting corporate immunity bills creates disincentives for even law-abiding employers to protect their workers—producing a race-to-the-bottom for workplace standards—that could exacerbate the health and safety risks of the pandemic.
Despite the dangers of COVID-19, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Trump administration has failed to protect workers. Workers have filed more than 5,000 COVID-19-related complaints with the agency, but OSHA has conducted few if any onsite inspections at facilities where workers filed complaints about dangerous conditions, and has not issued any citations related to protecting workers from COVID-19 exposure at work. OSHA has refused to issue an emergency temporary standard requiring employers to protect workers from COVID-19.
In the absence of federal oversight, workers must be able to use every available tool to hold their employers accountable for following basic precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Corporate immunity laws will most directly and negatively impact Black, Indigenous, Latinx workers and other workers of color, including immigrants. These communities are disproportionately getting sick and dying from COVID-19—in part because structural racism has ensured that workers of color are disproportionately in jobs on the COVID frontlines.
To take action, tell Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to direct OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect all workers from COVID-19.
Green-lighting these immunity laws will enable further spread of the virus and economic struggle in communities of color at a time when states should be providing aid to people who need it most—including communities of color.
Corporate America has a long history of exploiting public crises—from wars and terrorist attacks, to market crashes and natural disasters—to make a profit by pushing through corporation-friendly policies while everyone is distracted and unable to resist effectively. Scholar/activist Naomi Klein calls this “disaster capitalism.” The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.
Frontline workers, who are disproportionately Black and Latinx, are rising up and demanding better protections from COVID-19. Congress and state legislatures should listen by requiring employers to maintain safe workplaces, and putting people before profits.
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.