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Nebraska advances virus protections for meatpacking workers

Nebraska lawmakers on Thursday debated a bill to protect meatpacking plant workers.
Nebraska lawmakers on Thursday debated a bill to protect meatpacking plant workers.
Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 7:55 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers on Thursday gave initial approval to watered-down coronavirus protections for meatpacking workers, but the measure faced opposition even though many plants are already following the proposed requirements.

Senators advanced the bill, 27-16, through the first of three required votes, which is enough to pass it but not enough to override a veto if Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts objects. A similar measure stalled in the Legislature last year.

The measure advanced after its sponsor agreed to strip out a 6-foot separation requirement for line workers and tougher ventilation requirements. Plant officials argued that the 6-foot requirement was impractical and noted that they have installed plastic dividers to protect workers. They said the ventilation requirements were too costly for some plants.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tony Vargas, of Omaha, said he has worked in good faith with plant officials and other opponents, but that lawmakers aren’t focusing enough on the safety of plant workers.

“Their concerns and cries for help have not been fully acknowledged or addressed in the way I think they should be,” said Vargas, whose father died from the virus last year and whose district includes several meatpacking plants.

Vargas said 7,382 Nebraska meatpacking workers have tested positive since the pandemic began, 256 have been hospitalized and 28 have died. Early in the pandemic, several Nebraska meatpacking towns were considered coronavirus hotspots. Ricketts and other governors said cases were spiking because workers lived together in close quarters.

Opponents said the bill was unnecessary because Nebraska’s plants have already introduced safety measures that essentially match the proposed requirements, and that the situation is under control. They also argued that regulating meat plants is a federal responsibility.

Sen. Julie Slama, of Peru, said the bill would require the state to apply for a federal waiver to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration, a process that would take at least six months. She said the delay would leave the state requirements in place for only a few months, because under the bill, they’re set to expire on June 30, 2022.

Slama said two of Nebraska’s larger plants, Lincoln Premium Poultry and Smithfield, currently have no confirmed cases, and the overwhelming majority of the state’s meatpacking workers have received at least one vaccination shot.

Sen. Mike Groene, of North Platte, said the bill is a feel-good effort to show empathy for the workers and inserts the state into the realm of federal responsibilities.

“We’re sticking our fingers in areas where it doesn’t belong,” he said.

Sen. Matt Williams, of Lexington, said a Tyson plant in his district has worked with federal and local public health officials on a plan that includes facemasks, gloves, staggered shifts and barricades to reduce the risk to employees.

“I don’t like the idea that they’d then get caught under the umbrella with those that are the bad actors,” Williams said.

The bill would require meatpacking plants to offer new, clean facemasks to employees at least once a day, screen them for COVID-19 each time they enter the plant and allow paid sick leave for workers who test positive.

It also would allow employees to leave the facility and get tested on company time, unless the plant provides in-house testing. Plant managers would have to report monthly case numbers to state agencies and the Legislature, broken down by race and ethnicity.

Additionally, state officials would have the power to conduct unannounced inspections and impose $5,000 fines for an initial offense and $50,000 fines for subsequent violations of coronavirus requirements.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.