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Labor unions on Tuesday sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to end a waiver program that allows poultry-processing plants to increase their line speeds during the pandemic.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and five of its local organizations, including one in Little Rock, argue that the USDA did not follow required procedures and ignored the agency's own rules and policies when it adopted the 2018 Waiver Program.

Historically, the program has faced scrutiny from workers-rights groups but has reached a new level as coronavirus outbreaks are discovered in U.S. meatpacking plants, resulting in sick or infected workers.

According to the complaint, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service approved 15 waivers allowing poultry plants across the Southeast to increase their maximum line speeds in April as the pandemic worsened.

Among those were a Wayne Farms plant in Danville, and a Tyson Foods plant in Noel, Mo. A Tyson plant in Dardanelle received a line-speed waiver in September, records show.

"It is stunning that USDA is further endangering these workers," union President Marc Perrone said in a statement Tuesday. "This lawsuit will help to finally stop this dangerous corporate giveaway from the USDA."

Despite the additional risk, the number of active cases stemming from poultry plants in Arkansas grew in June and have declined through most of July, data shows.

Meatpacking workers who often stand shoulder to shoulder doing repetitive motions for hours are prone to musculoskeletal problems and other injuries, including sprains and cuts. They are at a higher risk of injury when production line speeds are increased, federal and private research shows.

In 2014, the USDA first rejected a proposal to increase line speeds beyond 140 birds per minute under a "New Poultry Inspection System." The agency changed course under the current administration after the National Chicken Council petitioned to waive the maximum line speed and operate plants at 175 birds per minute.

Since implementing the 2018 program, 53 of the 124 plants operating in the New Poultry Inspection System are authorized to operate lines beyond the maximum speed. The USDA said in late April that it would no longer accept applications for waivers under the 2018 program.

A USDA spokesman said the Food Safety and Inspection Service does not comment on pending litigation when asked about the lawsuit. A national labor union and five of its local unions in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, filed the 19-page complaint in Washington, D.C., federal court.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced a bill that would suspend and prohibit all USDA waivers and regulations that allow meatpackers to increase their line speeds during the pandemic.

Outbreaks at the plants have raised questions about conditions inside, now "faster line-speeds make it impossible for workers to practice social distancing and to comply with safety guidelines," Booker said in a statement.

The bill would prohibit the use of funds to develop policy or regulations that increase meatpacking line speeds and require the labor, agriculture and health departments to report on their safety responses to the coronavirus.

In Arkansas, the number of active virus cases stemming from poultry plants has fallen to 264 from 584 in the past month. Of those infected workers, 145 are Hispanic.

The total number of poultry industry cases is 3,975, the Arkansas Department of Health reported Monday.


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