Limited workplace protections, packaging woes could stress food supplies, lawmakers worry

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More face masks and flexible food packaging are needed to keep Pennsylvania’s grocery stores in stock, legislative leaders warned Wednesday.

The need is not yet urgent, Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said. But he hopes that Gov. Tom Wolf will work with suppliers to prioritize COVID-19 testing for food production workers, and coordinate supply chain shuffles to keep Pennsylvanian’s cupboards full.

“It’s a personal safety concern for the workers. But it’s also a societal concern in terms of availability of food,” Cutler said.

Food workers’ plight, particularly in the meatpacking industry, is well documented, from Minnesota to Pennsylvania’s own 4,500 meat cutters and packers.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, at least one meatpacking employee from Philadelphia has already died of COVID-19. Meanwhile, at a plant in hard-hit Luzerne County, 162 of 900 workers have tested positive for COVID-19, the Inquirer also reported.

Between power equipment and razor sharp blades, such plants are a dangerous place to work in the best of times. Add in an easily transmitted disease, and the conditions on a crowded assembly line with hundreds of employees get even harder to manage.

“The normal flu is an issue to deal with in these plants,” said Wendell Young, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776KS, which represents thousands of workers up and down the food supply chain.

Part of the issue is that federal workplace regulators at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration have held out on issuing rules to private employers for managing coronavirus in their workplaces.

“OSHA absolutely has the ability to protect high-risk workers, but it’s choosing not to,” Katie Tracy, an analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, told the Capital-Star.

That task has instead been left to the states, which have started to issue a patchwork of regulations through their agencies.

For example, Pennsylvania ordered “life-sustaining businesses” to stagger shifts, conduct temperature screenings, and provide masks to workers.

Young welcomed the new standards, saying at the very least they could provide a way for local and state authorities to hold employers to account.

“If you’re a company granted [a waiver] to stay open, with that comes a responsibility to protect your workers,” Young told the Capital-Star. “While you may be an essential business, they are not sacrificial workers, and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Enforcement of Wolf’s rule will, in the case of food processing, fall to the state Department of Agriculture. So far, Young said he hasn’t encountered many uncooperative employers. 

And, according to Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, some plants have even temporarily closed to adjust their plants for the new normal. 

Those it might have been a “painful decision” to close for 14 days to conduct a thorough cleaning, repositioning their production lines, and add new safety and protective measures, 

During a Wednesday press call, Redding credited those producers with doing a “really, really good thing.” 

Redding added that working with that industry on the new standards has gone “incredibly well,” and that he’d be joining a White House call on Monday to discuss their approach.

The state’s new policies haven’t been without some pushback. 

In an April 17 letter to Wolf, Cutler and three other House Republicans said Wolf’s “recent order for all employees to wear masks is not practical in many agribusiness and food processing settings.”

The letter instead called for the state to coordinate production rates, connect food processors with PPE suppliers, and prioritize testing for food manufacturing workers.

Mirroring the position taken by state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, Redding advised against mass testing of all plant workers, due to the high rate of false positives in COVID-19 tests.

Cutler further argued Wednesday that meatpacking workers should receive similar coronavirus protections as hospital workers.

But asked if additional enforcement was the answer, Cutler was hesitant, claiming that “there’s no evidence of anything yet. This is about being prepared.”

Reuse and recycle?

Another concern for policy makers is how to make sure good food goes to people’s plates, not the garbage, simply because it used to be in a 50-pound, instead of 5-pound package.

With so many restaurants closed, food suppliers have lost up to 50 percent of their market, Cutler said. 

That food is still edible and available, Cutler said, “we need to figure out how to repackage” it.

A similar problem has emerged with toilet paper, Cutler noted. According to online business news site Marker, shortages of the valuable commodity are not driven by hoarding, 

Instead, as more people work remotely, toilet paper produced in bulk to sell to office buildings or schools cannot be repackaged for home use.

He called for the Wolf administration to connect idle manufacturers with food producers so that food normally sold in bulk to a busy diner or tavern could be repacked for home use.

In his letter to Wolf, Cutler also called for the administration to let food suppliers and idled manufacturers coordinate packaging on a state website established amid the pandemic to help address the problem.

Redding agreed with Cutler’s assessment.

“All of that product that was in raw form before could not be simply broken down, repackaged, relabeled, and shipped out,” Redding said.

He cited food safety issues, as well as cost barriers to such a shift for farmers small and large.

There is one bright spot, however. Redding said that dumping of perishables such as milk and eggs has declined in recent weeks.