OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Romulo Vega, like many others, picked up a new hobby during the pandemic. He started his own podcast called “Quest for Fire” in April of 2020. Through his podcast, another interest was sparked — protecting meatpacking plant workers from COVID-19.
“The issue with the meatpacking plant workers’ safety really came about with my second and third episodes,” he said. “With the onset of COVID, I saw a couple of friends from different communities post on social media about their concerns that their parents weren't properly protected.”
Nebraska and Iowa’s meatpacking plants have been devastated by the virus outbreak. According to Nebraska State Sen. Tony Vargas, nearly 7,000 workers in processing plants in Nebraska have been infected and nearly 27 have died.
“There's a lot of fear in the meatpacking plant worker workforce itself...a lot of fear of retaliation if they sound an alarm that safety isn't properly met,” said Vega. “There were suggestions given and guidelines given by leadership but there's no enforcement mechanism...so largely, companies will self regulate and there's this disconnect between the community versus what the employers say they are doing.”
Vega is now heavily involved with organizations like Solidarity with Packing Plant Workers, which is on a mission is to raise the volume on the issue, saying that there's still a lack of transparency from large companies.
“There's members from all across the state,” he said. “Places like Lexington, Grand Island, Crete. Then there's another group called Children of Smithfield which largely emerged from the Crete area. It was really that coalition of these sons and daughters of the packing plant workers and them realizing, ‘Hey, this isn’t happening in a silo.’ There are other communities where the workers are at still at risk of being infected and there's that lack of transparency.”
Sen. Vargas has introduced a bill that demands better protection for Nebraska’s meatpacking workers. It includes forcing employers to provide workers with paid sick leave and clean personal protective equipment.
Vega supports the bill and has attended caravan rallies and legislative hearings in support of such bills.
“There's a lot of lessons to be learned from 2020 and even right now that we're really going to have to reflect on as a society and as a state,” said Veg. “To do nothing for this workforce, this packing plant force, to me would be one of the greatest tragedies that we as Nebraskans could ever commit.”
That's why he's encouraging the community to recognize the people working in those plants later this month.
“On March 20, the governor is doing a ‘Meat on the Menu’ event which is a celebration of meat...which is fantastic,” said Vega. “I would hope that in addition to celebrating beef and meat, we would also celebrate the essential workers...the meatpacking plant workers. With that said, I invite all Nebraskans, as you're grilling your steaks, also think of the safety of these workers. Think about legislation such as LB241 to give them those reasonable protections so they can continue to provide those foods that we all benefit from.