House DFL bill would offer safety protections for meatpacking workers

A person wearing a face mask in a car uses a megaphone.
Asamblea de Derechos Civiles vice president Patty Keeling takes part in a rally calling for increased safety measures at the Pilgrim's Pride plant in Cold Spring, Minn. on May 11, 2020.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2020

A state lawmaker is pushing for stronger safety protections for workers at Minnesota meat and poultry processing plants, where COVID-19 outbreaks sickened hundreds of employees during the pandemic.

Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, is author of a bill that would give meatpacking workers the right to refuse to work in conditions they deem unsafe. It also would require meat processing employers to provide paid sick time for workers to recuperate from illness, injury or to care for ill family members.

The bill would impose new requirements on meat processing plants to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including requiring physical distance between workers and providing them with personal protective equipment at no cost. It also would create a new position in the Department of Labor and Industry to investigate and prosecute violations of worker's rights.

"No Minnesota worker should have to choose between going into work and providing financially for their family or having to stay at home and not earn their income so they can protect the physical health and well being of their family,” said Wolgamott, whose district is home to employees at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant in nearby Cold Spring, Minn.

Early in the pandemic, workers at some plants complained of a lack of protective equipment, sanitation and social distancing, and of feeling pressured to come to work when they were sick. 

Meatpacking workers already have protections under the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights, which the Minnesota Legislature passed in 2007. It requires employers to provide meatpacking workers with safety equipment and information about their rights.

However, Wolgamott and supporters of his proposal, including unions that represent meatpacking workers, said it’s not adequate.

"It took a worldwide pandemic to pull back the curtain for the public really to see inside of these packing plants and see the kind of work that takes place in there,” said Matt Utecht, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, which represents workers at the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, Minn.

Antonio Jimenez is a 26-year worker at the JBS plant, where a COVID-19 outbreak last April forced operations to shut down for two weeks.

“Every day myself and my co-workers put our lives on the line when we go to work,” Jimenez said. “No one wants that to ever happen again.”

The House measure does not have a companion in the Republican-controlled Senate. Requests to companies JBS USA and Hormel Foods for a reaction to the bill were not immediately answered.

Meat and poultry processing plants — including JBS and its subsidiary, Pilgrim’s Pride — have said they have enacted numerous steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They include screening workers before they enter, increasing sanitation and providing protective equipment and physical barriers when possible.

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