Donald Dossier: Cut That Meat
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Starting with the meat industry, legal fights over the herky-jerky coronavirus reopening will play out for years.
If it hasn’t already, the meat in your supermarket display cases is about to become even scarcer. Meatpacking plants have been forced to shutter across the country after they became coronavirus breeding grounds for their low-paid, disproportionately immigrant workforce. Mega-grocer Kroger is now limiting customers’ purchases of beef and pork. This is not to the liking of President Donald Trump, a known beef aficionado and one who understands the political implications of a meat shortage.
Last week, Trump issued an executive order under the Defense Production Act declaring meatpacking plants to be critical infrastructure — and giving the Agriculture Department authority to keep them open. “They’re so happy,” Trump said Wednesday after a call with meat executives. “They’re all gung-ho, and we solved their problems.” There was talk of ensuring that health and safety guidelines are followed, but the real reason for all this is simple: lawsuits.
As a herky-jerky reopening of the U.S. commences, with dozens of states relaxing shutdown orders, the legal fallout will be felt for years to come. Who’s to blame if I contract coronavirus? Can I be effectively forced to work in dangerous conditions? How can our legal landscape handle this bizarre pandemic reality?
Before the executive order, meat processor Smithfield Foods already faced a lawsuit for unsafe conditions at a plant in Missouri, alleging that the company provided its employees insufficient protective equipment and didn’t allow for social distancing. But if meatpacking plants now essentially have the blessing of the feds to open, that’s quite the legal shield.
More business owners would love the same protection, as a virus lawsuit payout could kill a struggling restaurant or hair salon. Lobbying is accelerating for the feds to provide new protections. And it will be the biggest fight in the weeks to come in Congress: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with an overblown warning about a “pandemic of lawsuits,” is making legal liability protections a Republican requirement in any future relief package in Congress — as many in both parties agitate for help for state and local governments, and for pandemic-wracked businesses and employees. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, has said liability protections are a no-go, as she would rather protect workers and patients. The dispute will beget some classic partisan finger-pointing about the GOP being in the thrall of business executives, while Democrats only want to cozy up to trial lawyers — crucial sources of campaign donations for the parties.
The mudslinging will be familiar, but the larger questions are unprecedented.
Take the row over unemployment insurance. In states where businesses are opening back up, many immunocompromised employees might worry about returning to the workplace for fear of catching the virus. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said not showing up for work due to health concerns constitutes a “voluntary quit” and would make an employee ineligible for unemployment benefits. This will likely be the case across much of the country — and the impetus for more lawsuits.
Federal law says companies have a duty to provide a safe workplace, while a patchwork of state statutes will determine what kinds of claims customers might be able to bring. A problem for any potential plaintiffs will be proving where they contracted the virus, no easy task in a global pandemic.
Trump has indicated he would like to do more on liability protections, and advisers like Larry Kudlow are touting them on TV. As a business owner, Trump’s instincts clearly lean that way. But being seen as protecting the bosses over his blue-collar base carries substantial political risk.
One thing we do know in this uncertain time: Lawyers will be busy.