Find the latest episode of "The Uncertain Hour" here. Listen
COVID-19

What does President Trump’s order on meat processing plants mean for workers and food supply?

David Brancaccio, Candace Manriquez Wrenn, and Alex Schroeder Apr 29, 2020
HTML EMBED:
COPY
We're now buying almost all of our meat through supermarket chains. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
COVID-19

What does President Trump’s order on meat processing plants mean for workers and food supply?

David Brancaccio, Candace Manriquez Wrenn, and Alex Schroeder Apr 29, 2020
We're now buying almost all of our meat through supermarket chains. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

President Donald Trump is invoking his special authority under the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open. Some plants closed after becoming hot spots for COVID-19 infections.

Here’s what the president’s order does: It prevents local authorities from closing meat processing plants in their communities because of COVID-19 infections, as long as those plants are following federal safety guidelines.

The new recommended safety procedures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration include guidelines for cleaning and creating distance within workstations. They are not hard and fast rules, however; they are voluntary. The agriculture department is requiring “good faith” effort to comply.

If plant operators are in fact making a good faith effort to follow the guidelines, then the government may stand by them if they’re sued by workers for exposure to the COVID-19.

Given the nature of these facilities it could be difficult to find ways to keep workers away from each other.

“This is a very difficult situation for meatpacking plants, I think, more so than any other type of agriculture food processing plant,” said James MacDonald, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland. “It is going to be very difficult to enforce social distancing rules, I think, within those plants.”

MacDonald told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio companies cannot actually force workers worried about getting sick to actually show up on the job. And, the problem is, many of those workers are already sick.

The meat industry is not only being hit by these challenges on the supply side of things. There’s also a demand shock, as virtually all meat consumption is happening through grocery stores at this moment in time.

“We’ve had to shift probably more than half of beef away from food service and restaurants, and through supermarket chains,” MacDonald said. “And that’s a considerable amount of effort to repackage and re-cut that meat for the supermarket outlets.”

In the last week or two, wholesale prices for meat have risen “fairly sharply,” MacDonald adds. Butcher sections are looking a little thin given the demand there.

Then there’s the issue of what happens to animals that don’t get to market. We’re already seeing some animals at farms “being put down because the plants can’t really handle them at the pace they’re currently working at,” MacDonald said.

At just one poultry-processing plant in Delaware, 2 million chickens will be euthanized because of worker shortages and supply chain troubles.

Click the audio player above to hear the full interview.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

Read More

Collapse

Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.