Thursday, April 30, 2020

Anytime Is A Good Time To Eat Less Meat-- But Now More So Than Ever


Chris Martenson's daily podcast has gotten me through all this coronavirus stuff since late January, when I realized his advice was golden. I was able to switch much of my retirement money out of equities and buy enough toilet paper, brown rice, chickpeas, pasta and turnips to see me through a few months of pandemic. His warnings about starting a vegetable garden have been more worrisome than anything. Problems in the food chain is something he mentions frequently. Lately I noticed that parsnips and celery root are letting harder to find and that I'm using what I have less and preparing more plentiful rutabaga and daikon root more frequently.

But the real problem with the food chain isn't really parsnips; it's meat. The processing plants are hotbeds of infection and both ocal governments and owners have been shutting them down. CNN reported that with large numbers of workers getting sick and spreading the contagion in their communities, as much as 80% of meat processing capacity was headed towards shutting down. Trump has ordered them to stay open.
Over the past several weeks, a number of major meat suppliers have announced temporary closures as workers fall ill with Covid-19. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union estimated Tuesday that 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have died so far.

The situation has gotten so severe, company executives warned, that the US meat supply could be at risk. John Tyson, chairman of the Tyson board, warned of limited supply if plant shortages continue.

By invoking the Defense Production Act, Trump is requiring plants to remain open with some of the most dangerous conditions during the pandemic.

For years, major meat processors have been ruthlessly tamping down costs and increasing efficiencies. That has contributed to a hazardous working environment even before the coronavirus hit.

Over the years, meat processing companies have been speeding up production lines to process more meat in each facility. Faster lines require more workers who have to stand closer together.
As we've been pointing out, Texas congressional candidate Mike Siegel, has been working with labor unions and members of Congress to reforming OSHA with the intention of getting it to focus on protecting workers during the pandemic.

COVID-Mitch by Chip Proser

McConnell has signaled that he is willing to hold hostage anything and everything that helps ordinary American families unless Congress passes a corporate shield for GOP donors who open up their businesses when it isn't safe and cause deaths among their workers. This week that was the topic Judd Legum tackled at Popular Information where he explained how a corporate shield will leave workers exposed

Legum wrote that "When Congress passed legislation mandating paid sick leave during the pandemic, it exempted 80% of American workers. Notably, the requirement does not apply to any business with more than 500 employees. That means, with the lockdown still in place across much of the country, many 'essential workers' have to choose between coming to work sick and receiving a paycheck. Public scrutiny has prompted several large companies to improve their policies voluntarily, but many workers continue to expose themselves to substantial risk without basic protections. Health care workers, meat packers, grocery store clerks, and warehouse employees are getting sick and dying. Nevertheless, several states, despite warnings from public health officials, have begun loosening restrictions on businesses and bringing more people back to work. Simon Property Group, the largest mall operator in the United States, plans to reopen 49 malls in Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, and Missouri between May 1 and May 4. Right now, this activity is concentrated in states with Republican governors. But all states are expected to loosen restrictions at some point before a vaccine is available, exposing workers in contact with the public to health risks."
Workers returning to the job for the foreseeable future need protective equipment, operational plans that prioritize employee health over short-term profits, and paid sick leave. These are the minimum requirements to protect workers and customers.

Is the Republican-controlled Senate doing anything to improve conditions for workers as they return to their jobs? No. Instead, the Senate is preparing legislation to shield companies from liability if its workers get sick or die.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that giving businesses immunity from litigation is his top priority as part of the next stimulus package:
In an interview Monday on Fox News Radio, McConnell added that a liability shield for businesses and health care workers will be his "red line" in the next round of negotiations because "trial lawyers are sharpening their pencils to come after health care providers and businesses, arguing that somehow the decision they made with regard to reopening adversely affected the health of someone else." 
McConnell indicated he would oppose critical funding for state and local governments unless the package also includes a liability shield.

Trump said Congress needs to "take liability away from these companies" because he wants "the companies to open and to open strong." But this isn't about carving out narrow protections for companies that play critical roles in responding to the pandemic and need to act quickly. The administration "already has granted more limited liability exemptions for companies involved in producing and distributing key medical supplies."

McConnell and Trump are echoing the call of U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue, who said it was "just not fair" for businesses to be liable for exposing workers to conditions that result in illness or death.

Under normal circumstances, if your health is compromised due to "your employer’s negligence, recklessness, or willful disregard for a safe work environment," a worker could sue to "recover damages for lost wages, medical expenses, and your pain and suffering." (In some states, workers can continue to be paid and get their medical bills reimbursed without proving negligence under a streamlined "workers' compensation" process.) With a liability shield, workers will still lose wages, incur medical expenses, and experience pain and suffering, if they become sick at work. The difference is that all those costs would all be borne by workers and not employers.

Creating a liability shield, however, reduces the incentive for employers to "avoid tort liability by taking appropriate precautions." Justin Wolfers, a professor at the University of Michigan, explains this concept:
We want businesses to be scared. The claim from the Chamber of Commerce that liability will make people scared to do business is correct and that’s the point. We want businesses to take responsibility. All of tort law is about creating a strong incentive for people and companies to not act badly...What’s crystal clear is that if you let employers off the hook, they won’t take safety precautions.
This is an issue that will impact everyone, whether or not they immediately return to their workplace. "To protect public health, you have to protect worker health. And if they don't do that, it will spread into the community, and we'll have a second wave," Debbie Berkowitz, who worked at OSHA during the Obama administration, explained.

The risk of legal liability for corporations is already minimal because, even in a workers' compensation case, an employee needs to prove that they contracted the coronavirus at work. Since it's very difficult to prove where you contracted a virus, especially when there is community transmission, these lawsuits would be very difficult to win. But a liability shield means that corporations wouldn't even have to defend themselves.

...While McConnell and Trump push for a liability shield, Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) are taking a different approach. Baldwin and Duckworth introduced the "Every Worker Protection Act of 2020" last week. Instead of focusing on protecting employers from legal liability after employees get sick, the legislation tries to put in place protections to keep them from getting sick in the first place.

The legislation would "require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) within 7 days to protect health care and other employees from exposure to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19."

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