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Bill protecting meatpacking plant workers from COVID-19 introduced in Legislature

Posted at 6:32 PM, Jan 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-15 19:32:19-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — At the end of the legislative session last year, workers at meatpacking facilities told senators in an emotional committee hearing about working with blood filled masks, less than six feet a part.

Senator Tony Vargas noticed one group who wasn’t present; representatives from any of the state’s meatpacking plants.

“Not having any of the meatpacking plants themselves, or their representatives come to testify was a very big signal to me that there is something going on in regards to the protections for these workers,” said Vargas.

According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network there’s been at least 26 deaths from Nebraska meatpacking plants.

In response, Vargas is pushing a bill that puts a series of requirements on the facilities to ensure their workers are safe.

“There are times when laws need to be put in place to better protect people,” said Vargas. “There is clearly a problem and individuals being put in harm's way amidst the pandemic and there is something we can do about it.”

Some of those requirements would be to provide workers with unlimited masks, spread them out, screen them daily, communicate with them when employees are sick and pay them for missing work due to COVID-19.

It also subjects them to random inspections and if they fail the inspection and don’t correct their mistakes, they could get a heavy fine.

The initial fine is a minimum of $5,000 and any subsequent fine has a minimum of $50,000.

State Senator Mike Flood said it’s right for Vargas to focus on the meatpacking plant issue and seemed open to the bill.

“We need to go out of our way to make sure they’re safe and they’re healthy and make sure they understand how important they are to the process, and I think that should be a priority,” said Flood.

The bill has multiple conservative co-sponsors including Rita Sanders of Bellevue and Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, a city that had an outbreak in the spring.

“Wow. That was scary. I mean people were afraid to leave their houses, afraid to go to the grocery store, it was terrible and so having experienced that, I think you really realize the importance of this,” said Aguilar.

Unless there is an emergency clause it would still take the bill months to go into effect upon passage.

Aguilar hopes that plant owners will simply see the bill is coming down the road and change their protocols.