Faculty Spotlight

Playing Chicken with Worker Safety

By Brett Essler with contributions from Christina Sewell MPA ’21; video by Brian Miller
Posted Mar 30 2021
Livestock Plants and COVID-19 Transmission

As the United States memorialized the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the more than 500,000 lives it took, in mid-March, lawmakers continued to pursue legislation aimed at strengthening safety measures for those considered frontline workers. 

On March 11, Senator Cory Booker and Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Bennie Thompson announced they would re-introduce the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, which aims to suspend “all current and future USDA waivers and regulations that allow companies to increase production line speeds at meatpacking plants during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The bill addresses the unsafe conditions of slaughter and meat processing facilities employees, an issue brought to light by a recent research paper authored by SIPA professor Douglas Almond, SIPA PhD candidate Charles A. Taylor, and Christopher Boulos of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Their recommendations included a call for greater oversight of poultry, pig, and cattle slaughter and processing plants in the name of public safety. 

In the paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) in December 2020, the authors estimated that livestock plants were associated with 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases (six to eight percent of total cases) and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths (three to four percent of total cases) as of July 21, 2020. The majority of affected workers are from immigrant communities and communities of color.

Upon publication, the paper’s findings were featured in a Bloomberg story and Tweeted by Rachel Maddow, who wrote “the virus does not care whether it's the workers at meatpacking plants or the prisoners or prison staff or folks who live or work at nursing homes who are ‘most affected’ or ‘most at risk’ from COVID. It gets a foothold anywhere, it affects all of us.” 

Public awareness and concern for the conditions inside meatpacking plants has risen. A recent survey conducted by Lake Research Partners for the ASPCA showed 82 percent of respondents believing that the government should mandate slower slaughter speeds to protect workers, public health, and animals on the slaughter line. 

Almond, Boulos, and Taylor also found “evidence that plant closures attenuated county-wide cases and that plants that received permission from the US Department of Agriculture to increase their production-line speeds saw more county-wide cases.” 

“There were policies targeted at the livestock industry,” Almond recently told SIPA News. “Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, one of the most important ones was an executive order in late April 2020 to require, via the defense production act, livestock processing plants to remain open. Prior to that executive order temporary shutdowns of a duration of a week or two, followed by a reopening of the firm, more often than not, was greeted with a sharp reduction in community transmission.”

Almond and Taylor note that increased oversight of livestock processing is not without tradeoffs, with the livestock- and poultry-processing industry employing 500,000 people.

“You’re trading off public health and important supply chains, essential workers, and making sure there's adequate food for people, Taylor said. “That's a difficult policy decision.” 

Almond adds: “We need to be mindful in such industries where they're dominated by a few large employers, particularly in geographic areas where there aren't a lot of alternatives for employment, to ensure that the government is doing what it can to make sure worker health and safety is being protected.”