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Meatpacking worker advocates ask senators for COVID-19 protections

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Legislature 7.30

Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha speaks about the dangers of COVID-19 during a legislative session at the state Capitol on July 30.

Meatpacking workers and their advocates pleaded Thursday for more protections from COVID-19 on meat processing production lines in Nebraska where nearly 5,000 workers already have been infected by the virus and 21 have subsequently died.

Their testimony came in response to an amendment proposed to a pending bill in the fading days of the 2020 legislative session by Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha with the Business and Labor Committee essentially providing a public forum for worker concerns.

The Legislature is scheduled to conclude its session next week after three more days in session.

With that procedural hurdle probably in mind, meatpacking plant representatives chose not to appear at the hearing to voice their opposition.

Vargas described that no-show decision as "disrespectful," noting that it allowed company representatives to avoid answering questions. 

The primary proposal in his amendment would be a requirement that plants provide 6 feet of distancing between each worker, who now labor on swiftly moving production lines standing shoulder to shoulder and often directly across from one another.

That could be accomplished, the amendment suggests, by workplace adjustments that slow production line speed, stagger work shifts or adjust the size of shifts.

"This can't wait until the Legislature reconvenes" in 2021, Michelle Devitt, legal and policy coordinator for the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha, told the committee.

"Line speeds are lethal," she said. 

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, told the committee that the farm community wants workers protected for both economic and moral reasons.

"A bargain has been struck," he suggested. "If you guys put your lives on the line, then, by golly, we're going to be with you and find a way to be sure your workplace is safe."

Meatpacking companies do "as much as is necessary and as little as possible" to provide needed protection, Hansen said.

A long line of meatpacking worker advocates joined a few workers and family members in voicing support for the bill.

"These are our people and they are living in fear," said Terrence O'Donnell, a teacher at Omaha Bryan High School.

Students in his school are 69% Hispanic and "I'm here on behalf of students and families who are scared to come."

More than 20,000 meatpacking workers labor in meat processing plants in Nebraska, Susan Martin of the Nebraska State AFL-CIO said, and "we're just asking for basic protection and enforcement to keep workers safe."

Vargas said 23 senators earlier sent Gov. Pete Ricketts a letter urging him to take action to protect workers "and nothing happened."   

"It is misinformation to suggest that everything is fine," he said. "Concerns have gone unaddressed."

"Employees are risking a lot to be here," he said.

Vargas, the Legislature's only Latino member, lost his father to COVID-19 in April. Antonio Vargas died after 31 days on a ventilator in a New York City hospital.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSdon

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