Today, Workers’ Comp Practice Group leader, attorney Ashley Kirkham, talks to Charleston Laffin, Executive Director of the South Carolina Poultry Federation about proposed legislation to add protections for the poultry industry from COVD-19-related worker claims.
Michael Burney: And welcome to The Legal Bench. I’m Michael Burney, Director of Business Development for Collins and Lacy Law Firm in Columbia, South Carolina. With me is the leader of our workers comp practice group Attorney Ashley Kirkham. Ashley has a special guest to introduce us to and interview to help us to better understand our South Carolina poultry industry and some legislation that they are working on at present.
Ashley Kirkham: Thanks Mike. Charleston Laffin is here with us today. She is the executive director for the South Carolina Poultry Federation. She also serves as a lobbyist for the federation for the South Carolina General Assembly. Charleston solely represents poultry, the largest animal agriculture segment in South Carolina and is the voice for the commercial poultry industry in the state. Charleston, thank you for joining us on The Legal Bench. Can you educate us on the economic impact of the poultry industry, both nationally and here in South Carolina?
Charleston Laffin: Yes. Thank you Michael and Ashley for having me. Poultry in the United States provides over two million jobs. A hundred twenty-one billion dollars in wages and five hundred seventy-six billion in direct economic impact nationally. Poultry in South Carolina has just over a twelve-billion-dollar economic impact a year. And when we talk about poultry in South Carolina that includes our broiler product, which is chicken, turkey, eggs, squab and quail, and there are almost 800 family farms that grow poultry for food production in South Carolina. Our industry directly employs over thirteen thousand South Carolinians. We make up 40% of the total agri-business in the state and 80% of all animal ag.
AK: Where does poultry fall as far as the level of demand among all of the meat products and how has that demand changed because of the pandemic?
CL: Poultry is on the menu and prepared everywhere. Across the world, it’s the number one protein and it is as far as chicken goes in the United States, chicken is the number one protein that Americans consume. They rely on it as a healthy and convenient option. Prior to the pandemic, a study showed that 75% of Americans prepare some type of poultry in home as at least once a week. Since COVID-19, the chicken industry, for example, they’re retail sales have increased 1.3 billion, in which it puts them up nearly about 20% from this time last year.
AK: What has the status of poultry production been during the pandemic. Are employees classified as essential and what are the poultry producers doing in terms of workers safety because of the pandemic?
CL: That’s a great question. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, South Carolina and our nation’s poultry industry has worked tirelessly to ensure minimal interruption to our country’s food supply chain and to make sure all Americans have access to safe and affordable nutritious food. For the continued safety of our employees, the industry quickly implemented practices to minimize the risk of transmission between individuals and the workplace, provided all employees with PPE and health screenings, enhanced sanitation procedures, and implemented many other measures to help keep our employees safe while they were working to ensure that meat cases were stocked. Most of these changes were implemented prior to the issuance of the interim guidance for meat and poultry processing for workers and employers developed by the CDC and OSHA. The framework in the interim guidance has been implemented across our industry to promote a safe and healthy work environment for our critical infrastructure workers during the pandemic and the industry continues to adopt new safety measures as they become available. Employees in the poultry industry have been designated essential by the administration during the COVID-19 state of emergency. According to the administration’s Coronavirus Guidelines for American “If you work in critical infrastructure industry as defined by the Department of Homeland Security such as healthcare services, pharmaceutical, and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.” It goes to show that food production cannot be done remotely. We have to have our workers in place every day working shoulder to shoulder. These men and women who make their living feeding not only our families, our neighbors, and our nation, have been there for us during these trying uncertain times and this nation and this world must be fed global pandemic or not.
AK: You are exactly right. So, you have some legislation you are promoting. Give us some details about it and the outcome that you are hoping for.
CL: Yeah Ashley, it became very clear very early in the pandemic that we as an industry and all businesses for that matter were going to have to do something to protect ourselves from frivolous costly and time-consuming lawsuits. Currently, almost 9,000 lawsuits have been filed nationwide and 36 in South Carolina. At this time, 32 states across the country have passed some degree of COVID-19 liability protection. More than a year ago a very large group of businesses and industries spearheaded by our friends over at the South Carolina Manufacturer’s Alliance came together to work on and draft legislation for liability protection, which came to be S147. S147 just a few weeks ago passed the South Carolina Senate and is now over in the House. What this Bill does is cover entities that adhere to applicable public health guidance will be immune from liability for any covered claim that arise through acts or omissions in the course of operation unless a claimant can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the damages were caused by knowingly reckless, willful, or intentional misconduct or by failing to make any attempt to adhere to public health guidance. The legislation would enact retroactive liability protection to extend back to March 13, 2020, when Governor Henry McMaster declared the state of emergency and to remain in effect through June 30, 2021, or 180 days after the state of emergency is lifted, whichever is later.
AK: What can we do to help you with the legislation?
CL: Right now, I would tell everyone that listens to pick up the phone and call their House member and let them know how important COVID liability protection is, not just for the poultry industry but for all industry, all business, whether it is your local feed and seed store or your salon or the restaurant your family goes every Wednesday night for dinner, we all need this protection, because if you’re doing what’s right by your employees and following the guidelines and incompliance, you should not be worried about opening your doors and doing business.
AK: Well Charleston thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your passion about the poultry industry. This has been very interesting!
CL: Thanks for having me.
MB: You’ve been listening to Charleston Laffin, the executive director of the South Carolina Poultry Federation and workers comp practice group leader Ashley Kirkham of Collins and Lacy law firm. For more news of interest to South Carolina businesses, join us right here for the next episode of The Legal Bench.