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Vaccination rule applauded by unions at meat plants

The Labor Department requirement that large companies vaccinate or test their workers for COVID-19 is a step toward greater worker safety at slaughterhouses and other food processing plants, said labor unions on Thursday. The emergency temporary standard (ETS) sets a Jan. 4 deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated but does not apply to employees who work alone, from home, or exclusively outdoors, an exemption that could apply to some agricultural workers.

“Today’s action from the Biden administration, while not going far enough, is a critical first step to keep workers safe on the job as COVID-19 dangers continue,” said the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers union said the rule “will go a long way to protect our members from contracting COVID-19.”

The UFCW said that at least 497 of its members have died and at least 104,836 have been infected or exposed to COVID-19 while working frontline retail or meatpacking jobs. Some 750,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 during the pandemic. The Labor Department estimated the vaccination rule would prevent more than 6,500 deaths and more than 250,000 hospitalizations.

“While the ETS compliance deadline does take farmer co-ops past harvest and does exempt employees working exclusively outdoors, implementing this standard will be disruptive, and it contains no provisions included to help ensure the integrity of the food and agriculture supply chain,” said the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

The vaccination rule applies to businesses with at least 100 employees and requires them to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly for infection. Unvaccinated employees will be required to wear a mask at work.

The USDA has set a Nov. 22 deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated or seek a medical or religious exemption. The USDA did not respond immediately to a query about vaccination levels among its workforce.

For details about the Labor Department rule, including a fact sheet, a summary, and a link to the Federal Register notice, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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