retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Washington Post reports that President Trump has signed an executive order, invoking the Defense Production Act, "compelling meat processors to remain open to head off shortages in the nation’s food supply chains, despite mounting reports of plant worker deaths due to covid-19" and concerns that these plants are becoming hot spots.

The order says that "the government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance, according to a person familiar with the action who spoke about the order before it was signed by the president."

The Post writes that "at least 20 meatpacking plants have closed in recent weeks because of covid-19 outbreaks … The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents thousands of workers at U.S. meat plants, said Tuesday that at least 17 have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and at least 5,000 have been directly affected by the virus … Industry analysts say pork and beef processing has fallen 25 percent because of these outbreaks. Major meat companies, including Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA, have repeatedly touted their essential role in the nation’s food supply chain, often resisting calls from government officials and labor advocates to close their facilities due to outbreaks."

Some context from the Post:

"Worker safety experts say such an order would prevent local health officials from ordering meat companies to use their the most effective weapon available to protect their employees from the coronavirus - closures. They also fear that it would also undercut newly issued federal health guidelines designed to put space between plant workers. Trump has not publicly explained which provisions within the act he will rely on to compel plants to remain open or grant companies protection from workplace safety requirements."

At the same time as the White House prepared the new executive order, the Post writes, " the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA released interim guidance for meatpacking and processing facilities. It outlined procedures for cleaning shared equipment and reconfiguring workstations. It also included information on how companies can use physical barriers to put at least six feet between employees, who typically stand shoulder to shoulder in the plants.

It also called for the use of personal protective equipment and revising attendance policies to ensure employees are not penalized for taking sick leave because of the coronavirus. But like previous CDC and OSHA guidance for workplaces during the pandemic, it is voluntary and not enforceable."

One of the questions that seems to be open for debate is whether, by using the Defense Production Act, the Trump administration is able to grant manufacturers virtual immunity from lawsuits by workers who are infected in the workplace - though the nature of the coronavirus might make such determinations problematic.

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that "Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Republican lawmakers on a private call that he wants to shield companies from liability over pandemic-related suits," a position that the Journal describes as a response to "a major push by American businesses, which are getting hit with lawsuits as workers in meat-processing facilities, grocery stores, retailers and other locations get sick or die from Covid-19."

The Journal adds that "companies have been loath to say publicly that they are seeking laws to shield them from liability, and have instead been emphasizing the steps they are taking to protect workers, from disinfecting facilities to operating on staggered shifts to allow for more social distancing. They also say they worry about how to do the right thing in an environment in which some of their services are so essential to the basic functioning of the economy, like providing food and health care, that they need to stay operating."

Here's how the New York Times characterizes the issue:

" Lobbyists say retailers, manufacturers, eateries and other businesses will struggle to start back up if lawmakers do not place temporary limits on legal liability in areas including worker privacy, employment discrimination and product manufacturing.

"The biggest push, business groups say, is to give companies enhanced protection against lawsuits by customers or employees who contract the virus and accuse the business of being the source of the infection.

"The effort highlights a core tension as the economy begins to reopen: how to give businesses the confidence they need to restart operations amid swirling uncertainty over the virus and its effects, while also protecting workers and customers from unsafe practices that could raise the chances of infection."

KC's View:

I don't know how you keep plants open if they are proven hot spots … but maybe there's a way.  It does seem problematic and potentially counter-productive.

There are two different discussions happening here  … one is about what is taking place in ther plants, and the other is about what is happening in the stores.  They are, of course, connected, but one of the things that retailers have to do is their level best to avoid consumer panic.

That's what Stew Leonard Jr. did - pretty effectively, I think - in an interview today with CNBC: