The Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board met on Monday for the second time to discuss an Emergency Temporary Standard to further protect Virginia workers from possibly contracting COVID-19.
And it could take the 14-person board another meeting or two before it can approve the document, according to Princy Doss, policy, planning and public information director for the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry. The first meeting was held on June 24, according to Virginia’s regulatory town hall website.
Harrisonburg City Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of the state passing the emergency standards during its June 18 special meeting.
When Gov. Ralph Northam issued Executive Order 63, it included a provision requiring the commissioner of the department, C. Ray Davenport, to come up with emergency protocols to ensure employers are taking adequate precautions to keep their workers safe.
Poultry workers have expressed concerns about conditions in plants during the COVID-19 pandemic to the Daily News-Record on multiple occasions but declined to go on the record, citing reservations about voicing concerns publicly and that affecting their employment.
Representatives for the poultry industry say companies have been working hard to protect their workforce.
“The poultry industry really has put a tremendous effort into implementing measures within poultry plants in compliance with all of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety Health Administration and Virginia Department of Health] guidelines,” said Hobey Bauhan, president of the Harrisonburg-based Virginia Poultry Federation.
On June 22, the Virginia Poultry Federation, along with the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce and over 25 other business groups, submitted a joint letter voicing their own concerns about the emergency standards to the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.
In the letter, the groups point out numerous worries about how “one size fits all” COVID-19 regulations in the temporary standards may impact employers and the often vital products they provide to the public.
Labor advocates, however, say more needs to be done to ensure workplace safety.
“We still have clients coming to us in a variety of industries, not limited to poultry, expressing concerns about a lack of protections in the workplace,” said Jason Yarashes, the lead attorney and program coordinator for the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers.
Federal law has no emergency standards for employers, though the country’s largest union, the AFL-CIO, did unsuccessfully attempt to petition OSHA to introduce such measures.
“What Virginia is doing right now is taking a forward-looking move to step in where there’s a blank in federal law,” Yarashes said.
Roughly 10,000 workers in the Shenandoah Valley are employed at area meat processing plants, according to the city’s resolution.
The poultry industry in the commonwealth supports 1,100 farm families, of which roughly 275 raise turkeys and 800 raise chickens, along with nearly 19,000 jobs directly and nearly 35,000 jobs indirectly, according to a 2018 report.
The turkey industry specifically directly supports 3,267 jobs in Rockingham County, according to data from the 2018 Economic Impact Study of the Poultry Industry by John Dunham & Associates of New York.
A date has yet to be confirmed for the next meeting of the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board, but Doss said that staff and members are trying to coordinate for meetings on Wednesday as well as the week of July 6.
“Right now, we’re scrambling to figure out dates to try and schedule the next meeting,” Doss said.
Members of the board include labor and employer representatives from different industries, including the agricultural, manufacturing and construction sectors, as well as a pair of Virginia state government officials, Norman Oliver, the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health, and David Paylor, the director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed could not be reached for comment Monday.