KANSAS CITY, Mo. — President Trump on Tuesday invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open, but unions and workers are concerned about safety. Legally speaking, what happens next?
To answer that question, FOX4 interviewed Bill Martucci, National Employment Litigation and Policy Chair with Shook, Hardy and Bacon.
FOX4: The President has evoked the Defense Production Act. There is concern from some workers that they’re not being protected. Do you see new lawsuits happening?
Martucci: It’s a challenging time for everyone. We’re all kind of navigating our way through this. There may be lawsuits, but much of this, if it’s done with a lot of thoughtfulness, might be able to avoid that kind of lawsuit wave.
FOX4: Some civil litigation attorneys are saying that the president’s order doesn’t go far enough to address worker safety. Do you advise employers to follow the CDC guidelines? What do you advise that they do if they’re concerned about this?
Martucci: This is an area that is evolving, but certainly our guidance is to follow the CDC, to look closely at the OSHA guidelines and central to that seems to be social distancing that we’re all so familiar with now, but having literal pathways within the workplace that would permit the interaction of people to be very minimal. Also, more and more masks are being used and that’s appropriate. Gloves are being used. Deep cleaning is in place.
Martucci: As we return to the workplace, it’s going to be communication that’s essential and a lot of employers are thinking through that with various task forces at this point and ensuring the greatest level of health and safety that they can and they’re hopeful to communicate that to workers in advance of when they return to the workplace.
Martucci: One example is the use of taking temperatures. If we had thought about that six months ago, absent COVID-19, there would be concern that that’s a medical exam, but the EEOC has worked through this issue and said under the circumstances that’s acceptable and so quickly temperature taking has become a protocol before one enters the workplace.
FOX4: The United Food and Commercial Workers Union is calling on governors to force work places to implement some of these safety standards. Does one person have the authority do to that? How much onus is on the employer?
Martucci: Some workplaces do not have a union so that concern wouldn’t quite apply there. Many do have unions and in fact what we’ve seen recently in manufacturing and what we’ve seen in food production is that unions tend to have a very strong foothold and speak up for individuals so that’s going to be a collaborative process.
FOX4: These CDC guidelines, they’re just guidelines, right? They’re not laws.
Martucci: That’s right, but the one thing that’s encouraging for everybody is of course people, management, employees, unions want to get it right. There is a great deal more practical advice given to us from the medical community and from the science community, so for example, six weeks ago we thought to be there wouldn’t be that much protection from a mask. Now the CDC has said try masks, so we’re seeing things evolve in a way that really is quite positive.
Martucci: The reality is that we’ll have to go slow, we’ll have to have pilot programs. We’ll have to phase in certain aspects before we go too quickly, and I do think this point about communication is so critical is because any one of us who then go back into our workplace would like to know ahead of time what are those protocols, what should we be doing?
FOX4: One of the main complaints from some of these factory employees are that a) we don’t have any paid sick leave and b) some of these companies are giving incentives for people to not miss work, which could in turn lead to people coming to work ill. Do you think we are going to see changes in the area of paid sick leave?
Martucci: I think that if you look at Europe there’s a whole different system in terms of medical care and there’s a whole different system in terms of time off both in terms of vacation and paid sick leave. Now that we have these issues here and what’s happened in recent political discussions, I think we’ll see a great deal more in that regard.
FOX4: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Martucci: Whether it’s a large employer, medium or small employer, truly everyone is looking for the right guidance and so I think the upbeat aspect of this is that in those situations where there’s some contention between competing interests, but the goal is really the same, which is to have a safe and healthy workplace and I think we’ll get it right.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.