Proposal to ensure workplace protections considered

The Business and Labor Committee held a public hearing Aug. 6 on a proposal that would implement certain protections for meat processing employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

LB667, as introduced by Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas, would provide grant funding for youth workforce development training.

Vargas introduced an amendment that would remove those provisions and instead require meatpacking plant employers to maintain six feet of space around and between each worker through a combination of increasing physical space between workstations, slowing production speeds, staggering shifts and breaks and adjusting shift size.

Vargas said the proposal is necessary to address the mistreatment of meatpacking workers, the failure of employers to implement health and safety measures and the perception throughout the state that the coronavirus is not a serious threat.

“This is not the first action that meatpacking workers, their families and advocates have taken to address these issues,” he said. “I know they’ve communicated with the governor and with employers about these concerns and issues, but their concerns and cries for help have gone unacknowledged and unaddressed.”

Under the proposal, employers would be required to provide all workers with face masks and shields, free of charge, replaced daily or as needed. Workers would have the ability to frequently sanitize their hands and receive gloves, also free of charge, upon request.

The amendment would require regular cleaning and disinfection of all frequently touched surfaces and installation of ventilation systems that would ensure unidirectional air flow, ventilation with outdoor air and filtration.

Each individual would be screened for coronavirus upon entering a facility and be informed of their results. A worker who believes they may have been exposed could immediately leave the facility to receive a COVID-19 test on paid work time.

If an employee tests positive, the employer must identify and notify in writing all workers who worked in the same area and on the same shift of their possible exposure, while maintaining the infected person’s confidentiality.

The amendment also would ensure paid quarantine time for a worker awaiting test results and paid sick leave for someone who has tested positive.

Gabriela Pedroza, a former meatpacking worker, spoke in support of the amendment. The protections would show workers that the state hears and understands their concerns, she said, and is doing what it can to keep them safe.

“It is no secret that a lot of people have gotten sick and one too many, unfortunately, have passed away,” Pedroza said. “They’re essential workers but most importantly every human in [a meatpacking plant] is essential to their families and communities.”

Also speaking in support of the amendment was Eric Reeder, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 293. The proposal alone will not solve the problem of meat processing working conditions, he said, but it would move things in the right direction.

“What you have in front of you is a first step in helping the [workers],” Reeder said. “The employers, as long as they’re not mandated to do something, they’re not going to do it.”

The amendment would allow the state Department of Labor to conduct unannounced workplace inspections of meatpacking facilities.

Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen supported the provision, saying that healthy meatpacking workers are essential to a successful agricultural industry.

“[Coronavirus] created enough sickness and shutdowns in the meatpacking industry that we were contemplating the logistics of euthanizing, destroying and burying millions of animals,” he said. “It behooves our state for both economic and moral reasons to find a way to do this additional inspection.”

The amendment also would require meatpacking plants to track the daily total number of positive test results and COVID-related deaths, disaggregated by race and ethnicity. The data would be transmitted to the state Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Labor, as well as the Business and Labor and Health and Human Services committees of the Legislature.

No one spoke in opposition to the amendment and the committee took no immediate action.

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