Requirements that all federal employees must receive a COVID-19 vaccine by Nov. 22 or face termination have those in the food supply chain concerned about a shortage of federal inspectors as well as employees at USDA offices.
A letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack by the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and National Turkey Federation raised concerns about the effects on USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and other USDA personnel from the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Implementation of the mandate, the organizations point out, may lead to a loss of some FSIS meat inspectors, resulting in packing plant disruptions and closures. They note that the meatpacking industry already has limited harvest capacity because of increasing demand for meat and poultry, a severe labor shortage in rural communities and pandemic-related supply chain challenges.
“We cannot emphasize enough how detrimental even minor disruptions in processing capacity and other critical USDA functions may be, as we cannot afford to exacerbate existing supply chain issues at such a fragile point in our recovery,” the letter states.
The agricultural groups ask for “clarification on how USDA will mitigate potential disruptions in staffing with the implementation of this [vaccine] directive.”
In early October, Vilsack addressed questions from congressional members on the mandate impact on USDA offices and inspectors before the House Agriculture Committee. He says there are provisions that allow for religious or health exemptions.
“I would anticipate we will be able to do what we need to do to keep offices open,” Vilsack said at the hearing. “I don’t anticipate a significant number of closed offices.” He also added that USDA plans to take steps to not disrupt inspections or the important work done at these plants.
A USDA spokesperson confirmed Nov. 17 that the secretary continues to remain confident that there will not be any disruptions in services offered by USDA due to the mandate.
On Tuesday Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., introduced H.R. 5978, the Exemptions for Critical Workers Act. This legislation would provide an exemption for federal workers identified as “critical” and/or “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security from the vaccine mandate stating that all federal employees must receive a COVID-19 vaccine by Nov. 22 or face termination.
“Our supply chain is already experiencing nationwide shortages and delays exacerbated by the Biden administration’s reckless policies," Newhouse says. "Now, President Biden is holding the workers who keep our country running, and who have been on the frontlines since the onset of the pandemic providing essential service, hostage through his vaccine mandates, further threatening the stability of our economy."
According to a letter requesting a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on ag supply chains featuring Vilsack from Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and John Thune, R-S.D., the federal worker vaccine mandate is going to hit rural farming communities disproportionally harder. The letter notes USDA has clarified that vaccines will be required even for the volunteer county committee members of the Farm Service Agency despite the fact that such committee members are not considered federal employees according to USDA’s 2019 COC Stakeholder FAQs.
“This will severely impact USDA’s ability to service the farming community already hard hit by supply chain issues,” the senators write.
Private workforce mandate
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration suspended implementation and enforcement of their COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employers with more than 100 employees pending future developments in the litigation. The suspension follows the Fifth Circuit Court putting a stay on Joe Biden’s unconstitutional vaccine mandate last week. National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President Chuck Conner welcomed the action by OSHA.
“I commend OSHA for heeding the ruling of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and withdrawing the Emergency Temporary Standard implementing a vaccine and testing/masking mandate for larger employers pending further judicial action. OSHA should use this opportunity to further consider input from stakeholders so that, if the court ultimately lets the agency move forward with the ETS, it can implement the policy in a more measured way that protects the integrity of the agri-food supply chain and its workforce.”