Business and Labor

Meatpacking worker protections stall

Lawmakers bracketed a proposal May 18 that would enact health and safety protections for meatpacking workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Sen. Tony Vargas
Sen. Tony Vargas

LB241, as introduced by Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas, would require employers to maintain 6 feet of space around and between each worker, including in common areas like lunch, break and locker rooms.

During the 2020 legislative session, Vargas attempted to incorporate the provisions of LB241 into another measure but the effort was unsuccessful. The rejection of that proposal, he said, resulted in increased cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 in meatpacking plants.

As amended during general file debate, employers would be required to maintain 6 feet of space in common areas only. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revise COVID-19 guidelines, the state Department of Labor could adjust provisions in LB241 to mirror those recommendations.

Under the bill, employees would be screened for COVID-19 at the start of each shift, including a temperature check — with the result disclosed to the employee — and either an oral or written questionnaire including questions about possible symptoms and exposure.

If a worker suspects they have been exposed to COVID-19, they could leave the meatpacking operation premises to receive a test on paid work time. Employees displaying COVID-19 symptoms would be allowed to quarantine at home while awaiting test results, although asymptomatic employees could return to work.

The bill also would ensure paid sick leave for an employee who tests positive that would not count against any other paid sick leave owed to the employee. The protections proposed in LB241 would apply until June 30, 2022.

Kearney Sen. John Lowe offered a motion during select file debate to bracket the bill until June 10, 2021, which effectively would end debate on LB241 for this session. As cases have declined and vaccination rates have increased, Lowe said, the provisions outlined in the proposal have become unnecessary.

Speaking in support of the bracket motion was Blair Sen. Ben Hansen. He said federal regulations are changing quickly in light of increased vaccination rates.

“Currently, it’s best to hold off on creating a new law that targets a specific industry,” Hansen said. “Right now, in my opinion, it is not needed.”

Vargas opposed the bracket motion. Meatpacking plants that have implemented many of the bill’s provisions already should not take issue with codifying those regulations in state law, he said.

The bracket motion prevailed on a 25-18 vote.

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