Federal food inspectors contracting coronavirus as plants stay open

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See Editor’s Note below this transcript for related information on face coverings received from the Food Safety Inspection Service.

You might be preparing to put some burgers on the grill this May weekend, maybe steaks. When you do, pause for a moment to think of the 6,500 federal food safety inspectors working in meatpacking plants ordered by the White House to stay open. More than 130 of them have already contracted the coronavirus. For what’s going on from the inspectors’ standpoint, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the acting president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 45, Paula Schelling.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Ms. Schelling, good to have you on.

Paula Schelling: Thank you for having me today.

Tom Temin: And you’re speaking from Wisconsin, where a lot of meat packing, I guess happens. Let’s begin with the bigger picture here. How would you characterize relations between the members of Local 45 and the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the Agriculture Department?

Paula Schelling: Well, Council 45 in the labor relations between us and the agency is frayed at best. The administration right now that we are under is not very conducive to having a good labor management relations. Yes, there is communications, but there is a failure to provide the impact and implementation of what they want to put on the members that we represent.

Tom Temin: And so these members, the 6,500 strong, are in the plants all over the country, is that correct?

Paula Schelling: That is correct, coast to coast, border to border in Alaska, American Samoa and Puerto Rico.

Tom Temin: And do they look at beef and chicken and pork and everything else?

Paula Schelling: They look at any species that the grant of inspection is for, for that establishment. So yes, it could be beef, it could be pork, it could be chicken, it could be turkeys, yes.

Tom Temin: All of that. And in general, before all of this happened with the coronavirus, what were conditions like and what kind of protective measures did they need?

Paula Schelling: It was dependent on what the agency would provide. There’s many zoonotic diseases out there, that our employees need to be protected under. And with the COVID-19 coming in the agency provided no protective, no PPEs to the unit at all to help protect themselves.

Tom Temin: Before coronavirus, if they went into a plant to inspect, would they have had protective gear of some type?

Paula Schelling: Not necessarily. For the most part, PPE is helping you so that you’re not cutting your fingers when you’re slicing a lymph node or into a heart or into any type of what we would do for inspection. That was the only PPE that the agency had provided prior to COVID.

Tom Temin: And if people felt that they wanted to have a face mask or protective face shield for some reason, did they provide it for themselves?

Paula Schelling: Yes, yes, they would have had to provide it by themselves. And in not all cases, where, an example would be if I was in a poultry facility, and that company used a PAA, which is a peracetic acid. There was some inspectors that would wear a mask because they were having a hard time breathing, they would provide their own and the agency in some cases would not allow that to happen. And that’s all prior to COVID-19.

Tom Temin: And why would they not allow that to happen?

Paula Schelling: Because there was no standard set of how that individual could protect themselves.

Tom Temin: Interesting. So I would imagine that alone would keep things kind of frayed in terms of labor management relations.

Paula Schelling: That is correct.

Tom Temin: And I guess I didn’t realize until now that inspectors actually put a knife to materials to inspect it, so that that’s a danger in and of itself.

Paula Schelling: Oh it is a danger in and of itself. Yes, it is. In any … for beef and for pork, yes, there is that danger. There’s that inherent danger where not only the inspectors but the plant employees also have knives that they do to make certain cuts on that carcass.

Tom Temin: Got it. We’re speaking with Paula Schelling. She is the acting president of American Federation of Government Employees council 45. And now that coronavirus is here, what is the protective measures that your members feel they need? Is it because of contact with other people? Or is there something going on – the virus might be in the meat?

Paula Schelling: Well, I don’t know. There’s no scientific studies that says that there is any transmission between somebody that has COVID-19 and the food products itself. I believe that the food that we are eating currently and down the road is still safe. However, for an inspector there is no social distancing in any of the slaughter or processing facilities. Nor would, at the beginning of this, did the agency provide any face coverings. And as we both know, CDC guidelines talked about social distancing of workers and that could not happen well, when you’re elbow to elbow with either a plant employee or other inspectors in a facility. As naturally as what we talk, there is particles that come from us. And there was no protection from that. Even though the agency meeting FSIS said, you know what we’re following the CDC guidelines. There was no way that that could have been implemented in any of these plants.

Tom Temin: In the meat inspection situation, then, the inspectors have to be as close to the workers as the meat workers are to themselves.

Paula Schelling: Correct. Yes.

Tom Temin: And what happened when you asked the agency? They said, well, we’re following CDC guidelines. I mean, since then, in the last couple of weeks, has that changed? Have you been provided the protective gear?

Paula Schelling: Yes, there has been changes. However, we have not been provided that protective gear. The agency FSIS Notice 19-20, and I don’t recall the date that that was published. But that notice said that if you can find face covering or make it yourself, we will reimburse you $50. Now mind you that these people are coming to work, they are doing the best that they can, and yet with the environment that we’re in, we got to keep social distancing, there was no opportunity to be able to go look for it. And we know that the short supply of facial shields, masks, covering – however you want to term it to be, was not out there to the general public to be able to get. And I know in some cases, there’s been several pockets throughout the country that I know that there has been some inspectors or families of inspectors that have been making face coverings and we are getting them out to the people that are affected by all of this that are out in the front lines.

Tom Temin: So the mode now then is the agency says it will reimburse people for supplies but it’s not supplying them itself.

Paula Schelling: That is correct. Whether it is either face coverings or if it is any sanitizer, that can be in the facility.

Tom Temin: And to your knowledge now given that situation, have the members all been able to secure, build, sew their own protective gear so that at least they’re protected pending the reimbursement?

Paula Schelling: Not to my knowledge. I do here yet. As a matter of fact, even earlier this morning, you know, Paula, I still don’t have any because I don’t have access to go get any material to be able to make my own or be able to secure it by ordering it from some facility or company. So there is still people, inspectors, that are working out there that are still not protected.

Tom Temin: And any sense that this will move in some way to where the agency says, yeah, we will send out masks? Any sense that that could happen?

Paula Schelling: Well, at several different times, the agency has said yes, we have talked to vendors, and they say that we’ll get it to you on this date. And then as that date gets closer to getting it, they said, No, we’re it’s backordered. So do I have a comfortable sense that by May 7, 2020, that everybody will have that face? No, I do not have any of that reassurance.

Tom Temin: And do you know that members have at least received the reimbursement so far?

Paula Schelling: I have not heard that people have exercised that at all at this point. I’m not saying that they have or I’m not saying that they haven’t. I have not heard that because I can tell you, too, that I have been in contact with some seamstresses, and they are making some face masks that I can get out to individuals.

Tom Temin: Paula Schelling is acting president of the American Federation of Government Employees local 45, and that local represents Agriculture Department food safety inspectors. Thanks so much for joining me.

Paula Schelling: Thank you for having me. Take care and be safe.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to more information at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand and on your device. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

Editor’s note: Since this interview aired, a spokesman for the Food Safety Inspection Service said that as of May 1, the agency made available 30,000 cloth face coverings, half of which have been distributed to the field. And that requests from employees in the field for face coverings have been filled. On May 5, the agency received another 50,000 cloth face coverings. On May 6, 320,000 paper masks were available. The spokesman said this will keep field personnel supplied for several months. Also this week, according to the spokesman, FSIS received 5,000 face shields for field employees, and is working to procure additional shields sufficient for every field employee to have two. Finally, FSIS will, each week, receive 2,000 gallons of liquid hand sanitizer in gallon containers.