Trump orders more fear

EDITORIALS

BY ART CULLEN

President Trump invoked national security authority this week to order meatpacking plants to operate come Hell or deadly virus, and said that he is waiving liabilities for companies to make sure the pork keeps rolling off the line. It was purely a political statement — that you had better get to work, or else — that aims to keep fear stoked against immigrants.

His talk about easing liability concerns is, as usual, pure hokem. Storm Lake attorney Willis Hamilton, who has spent nearly five decades advocating for meatpacking workers, brings up this prickly idea of the 10th Amendment that reserves rights to the states — among them, their own judicial systems. The President cannot by fiat absolve any company of their state workers compensation liabilities or their liability in the event of gross negligence, Hamilton points out. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agrees. “Is he saying that if an owner tells a worker they have to work next to somebody who might have coronavirus without a mask or PPE, that that owner wouldn’t be liable? That makes no sense,” Schumer said on Tuesday.

No, Hamilton said, this order is about fear.

Latinos, especially, have never been more afraid. They have been terrorized by the President and our congressman. They are afraid of calling in sick or reporting illness. They are afraid for their families.

Against that backdrop, Gov. Kim Reynolds reminded workers that if a plant opens up you must return to work. Unemployment benefits will cease. Even if you think it could be a death sentence.

After all, meatpacking towns are the hotspots of America now. Sioux City is the hottest of them all. Tyson has been asking state and federal authorities for guidance and resources (like testing) but they were woefully unprepared despite Trump being warned repeatedly months ago. The USDA and OSHA did nothing to inoculate the industry. Tyson asked for guidance and resources, and it got the offer of a waiver of workplace safety liability that actually cannot be waived. Still, there is no testing of the Tyson workers in Storm Lake because of lack of resources. Testing is available for NBA players. It is unconscionable.

It’s not as if workers had to be threatened. They showed up. On time. They are doing the job. Tyson is trying to do what it can to protect them by providing more protective equipment and trying to create more space. The federal and state governments largely ignored the problem until it was too late.

Trump’s order would suggest that a widespread break-out in a meatpacking plant will not result in its temporary closure for cleaning, as happened in Waterloo and Columbus Junction. That’s a potential death sentence.

No question that the meat plants must operate. Everyone but the fringe actors believe that. But they have been operating in the absence of guidance from state and federal authorities that puts public health at risk. The President’s order does little to create safety, but it does a lot to build anxiety in an already fearful community. The meatpacking industry needs protective equipment, more spacing and comprehensive testing. It needs healthy workers. And health authorities need the flexibility to shut down a plant just as a USDA inspector can to fix a problem before it kills somebody.

A sense of place

In these dystopian times, it was comforting to see a sketch of a welcome bench/monument proposed by Jim and Judy Spooner on the front page of the paper. It looks like a nice cobblestone construction with letters spelling Storm Lake. It fits the scene. It looks nice. But what is really nice is that a hometown boy, Jim, who made good with a career in Des Moines, thought so much of this community that he and his wife wanted to permanently express it. Jim’s mom, Jane, lives at Methodist Manor and the couple spends a lot of time in the Spooner homestead on Lake Avenue. Jim was among the earliest and strongest supporters of lake restoration and Project Awaysis. It says something about a place that it keeps native sons engaged from far away. After this pandemic, we think we’ll see more of it — a longing for and celebration of community. It’s a good sign, figuratively and literally.

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