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'The situation is dire': Senator proposes COVID-19 protections for meat processing workers
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'The situation is dire': Senator proposes COVID-19 protections for meat processing workers

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Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha on Monday introduced legislation to provide protections for meat processing workers against the coronavirus, including a requirement for 6 feet of distancing on rapidly moving production lines.

Vargas attempted to gain approval for consideration of such restrictions during the final days of the 2020 legislative session in August but the Legislature balked. 

Since then, he said, workers have been contracting the virus in large numbers, and some of them have been dying with the prospect that "more will die than we ever imagined."

"Without some kind of legislation, this is going to get a lot worse," Eric Reeder, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 293, said during a Zoom news conference with Vargas and other supporters of the legislation.

More than 6,000 workers have tested positive for the virus, Gladys Godinez of the Center for Rural Affairs said.

Other figures presented during the conference pointed to 249 hospitalizations and 26 deaths.

The legislation, introduced as LB241, would require 6-foot distancing for workers throughout meatpacking plants, including in lunch rooms, break rooms and locker rooms. Masks would be required for all workers at no cost.

COVID-19 screening would be required upon entry to the plants and workers who are infected would be guaranteed paid sick leave while they are quarantined.

The new restrictions would be in effect until the end of the year.

Plants could meet the requirement of 6 feet of distancing between workers on production lines by such actions as slowing line speed or adjusting work shifts, the legislation states.

Vargas represents a largely Latino district in South Omaha that contains large numbers of meat processing workers and their families. The industry relies largely on an immigrant workforce.

"People are reporting that conditions are getting worse in the plants," said Darcy Tromanhauser, immigrants and communities program director at Nebraska Appleseed.

Individual workers have told Appleseed about significant increases in line speed, no opportunity for social distancing in the cafeteria or bathrooms, and workers standing "shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow" on production lines without adequate protection from the plastic dividers that are in place.

"The situation is dire," Vargas said. 

"This should have happened last year."

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

On Twitter @LJSdon

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