The machines are packed tight, four to a room with four workers operating each. The shift runs between nine and 10 hours. The lunch break is 30 minutes, but it takes at least three to get to the cafeteria and three to get back. That’s 24 minutes to eat in a cafeteria.

The machines pack chickens. That’s all they do. Sometimes they jam, though, and the man I talked to has to reach down into the machine and, by hand, pull out the chicken parts clogging the works. Those parts are put in a box, to be sent through the machine again later.

The man I talked to works this machine with three other people. Two are on the other end of the machine most of the time. The third is right next to him. The other machines are close by, but now divided by plexiglass. Everyone wears a mask, including the supervisor, who comes around a few times per day.

Word spread around the shop floor that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19. Some precautions were taken, but it wasn’t long before an outbreak had occurred and was reported widely in the media. Outbreaks in meat-processing plants elsewhere around the country have made national headlines and have generated an outsized proportion of positive tests.

The man I talked to was one of those who suffered an infection, albeit not one of the people who had to be hospitalized. The company started a testing protocol, but he doesn’t know how many co-workers have a confirmed case, or how many had recovered from one. He doesn’t know how long after “recovery” it is safe to be near such a person, and he doesn’t know how long it’s been since the “recovered” co-workers were symptom free. There is no union, and many of the workers speak no English.

What should his rights be? If he is at risk, or a risk to others, could he be fired? What should the employer have to do, or be allowed to do? What do we, as a society, owe this man and his employer? These are the questions that demand answers right now.


As matters stand, he can be terminated for any non-discriminatory reason – including a decision not to work for fear of infection. At a certain point, he was no longer eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, since he no longer had a “serious health condition.” He might have had rights to short-term disability, but that is also contingent on his physical condition. The relevant state and city agencies, thus far, have mostly not explored the limits of their authority to close places of business.

Put yourself in his shoes. Would you go to work in that setting? Would you recommend that a family member go to work, knowing only what he knows?

Many states have acted to protect employees like him, but every state has different grants of authority to their governors. Labor and employee advocates have recommended dozens of options around the country – everything from expanded whistleblower protection to expanded Occupational Safety and Health Administration authority to new presumptions under workers’ compensation law.

To my eye, there is one policy option that we should implement immediately. It’s not what I would want if I were designing policy from scratch, but it may be the only thing right now that threads the political needle of competing political interests. To help this man, and all similarly situated employees, the state should broaden and extend unpaid leave under its FMLA while maintaining extended unemployment benefits. In this way, many workers could protect themselves and their families, while at the same time meet basic financial needs and – most importantly – protect their right to their job when the pandemic passes.

At the same time, this policy change would be sensitive to some of the problems faced by Maine employers, and it would ensure those employers would regain skilled employees immediately upon the end of the crisis.

I urge our policymakers to adopt this balanced solution to a vexing problem. We cannot sit by and force workers to choose between their physical and economic health.


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