President Donald Trump at NRA Annual Meeting
Credit: The White House/Flickr

There is a common scene in television shows and movies where a thief points a gun at the head of his victim and makes the demand: “Your money or your life.” I thought of that when I read this news.

Some states that are reopening parts of their economies have warned employees that they’ll lose their unemployment benefits if they refuse to go back to work for their employers, even if they’re worried about contracting the coronavirus.

“If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said Friday. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”…

The situation is similar for workers in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Monday gave the go-ahead for retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to reopen on Friday…

Cisco Gamez, a Texas Workforce Commission spokesman, told the Texas Tribune that employees who choose not to return to work will become ineligible for unemployment benefits.

I’ll admit that I did a double-take when I saw how Bill Kristol responded to that story. He tweeted: “So the Republican position is employers should get a waiver of liability if their workplace turns out to be unhealthy, but employees should lose unemployment benefits if they won’t return to that unhealthy workplace. Will American capitalism survive the current Republican Party?” It sure looks like being a Never Trumper has opened Kristol’s eyes to the way his party has abandoned workers.

Kristol was referring to the fact that McConnell is insisting that a provision limiting the liability of businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19 be included in the next coronavirus relief bill. So he nailed it. For Republicans, employees must return to work or lose their unemployment benefits. But employers shouldn’t be held responsible if they fail to provide adequate protection in the workplace.

That might not be the exact equivalent of “your money or your life,” but it is interesting to note what Philip Bump has reported about counties that are home to meat-packing plants.

The Washington Post reported on Saturday that major meat processors had failed to protect many workers and had kept employees working in close quarters even as the virus spread…

A number of the counties with the highest per capita infection rates are home to meat processing facilities where the virus has spread quickly. We’ve written before about Louisa County, Iowa, where the number of confirmed cases surged quickly at the beginning of April. It is home to a Tyson plant and has an infection rate of 238 cases per 10,000 residents.

Dakota County, Neb. is also home to a Tyson plant. Its infection rate is 226 cases per 10,000. Cass County, Ind. has the sixth-highest per capita infection rate at 269 cases per 10,000 residents. It’s home to a Tyson Fresh Meats plant.

As we reported on Saturday, it’s not only Tyson that has experienced outbreaks. Spikes in infections in Hall County, Neb., and Nobles County, Minn., have been driven by the virus spreading through plants operated by JBS USA.

On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order that invoked the Defense Production Act requiring these meat processing plants to stay open. Referring to that plan on Tuesday, Trump said, “We are working with Tyson, we are. We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe. That will solve any liability problems where they have certain liability problems. We’ll be in very good shape.”

So there you have it. These plants were closing because they were causing massive outbreaks of COVID-19 in the mostly rural communities where they are located. Trump ordered them to stay open while ensuring that their liability problems will be waived. That is exactly what the Republican governors are attempting to do more broadly in their states.

As an aside, if Bump’s reference to JBS USA rings a bell, this is why.

JBS, a Brazilian company that is the largest meat producer in the world, has received $78 million in government pork contracts funded with the [agricultural] bailout funds — more than any other U.S. pork producer.

JBS’s winning hand in securing a quarter of all of the pork bailout contracts is one example of the power a small number of multinational meat companies now hold in the United States. JBS has become a major player in the United States even as it faces price-fixing and other investigations from the federal government.

So the Brazilian company that is under criminal investigation for price-fixing not only gets $78 million from the agricultural bailout that was supposed to relieve farmers who were impacted by Trump’s trade war with China, they now get immunity for failing to take precautions to protect their workers during a pandemic. As Kristol asked, “will American capitalism survive the current Republican Party?”

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