Minnesota Democrats, unions announce meatpacking safety bill

Published 8:19 am Thursday, January 28, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota House Democrats teamed up with meatpacking workers on Wednesday to announce legislation that would protect individuals who work at statewide meatpacking and food processing plants amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill, authored by Rep. Dan Wolgamott, of St. Cloud, would provide paid leave to meat and poultry processing plant workers so they could recover from an injury, an illness or care for a sick family member. The bill would also create a position within the state labor and industry department to enforce compliance and prosecute employers who violate the rules.

The proposal builds on legislation passed in 2007 that requires the plants to provide adequate safety equipment to employees and information about their rights as workers, which lawmakers said isn’t enough amid the pandemic. Wolgamott said at a news conference that the bill is inspired by consistent “heartbreaking and unacceptable” stories from constituents who have worked at these plants since the start of the pandemic in the spring.

“Everyday myself and my coworkers put our lives on the line when we go to work,” said Antonio Jimenez, a 26-year employee of the JBS pork plant in Worthington that experienced an outbreak among its workers in the spring. “I was here at the plant when the COVID outbreak happened — no one wants that to ever happen again.”

Several meatpacking plants were shuttered due to virus outbreaks last spring, forcing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue guidelines to protect workers. The guidance is not mandatory, which critics say makes it easy for employers to disregard.

Major meatpackers JBS, Smithfield and Tyson have countered by saying that worker safety is their highest priority.

Protections provided by the bill specific to COVID-19 include requiring employers to provide personal protective equipment at no cost to workers and adequate break time to allow workers to disinfect themselves, while disinfecting areas at the plants frequented by workers.

The bill does not have a companion in the GOP-controlled Senate, though Wolgamott said he’s optimistic he can build bipartisan support for the legislation.