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'Basic guardrails': Nebraska senators narrowly advance meatpacking workers protection bill

'Basic guardrails': Nebraska senators narrowly advance meatpacking workers protection bill

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Next Thursday, a committee of the Nebraska Legislature will have a public hearing on a bill that seeks to improve worker protections at meatpacking plants amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The Legislature handed narrow 27-16 first-round approval Thursday to a scaled-down bill that requires institution of basic COVID-19 protections for meat processing workers for one year. 

The motion to advance the bill forward required at least 25 votes. 

Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, sponsor of the proposal, offered amendments to the measure (LB241) that removed stronger provisions that originally would have mandated 6 feet of distancing among workers on processing lines and increased ventilation requirements.

The new proposal provides "basic guardrails," Vargas said.

Those earlier requirements appeared virtually certain to block the measure from further consideration.

"I am only asking now for one year of temporary protections and safeguards," Vargas told his colleagues, recognizing that the pandemic is not yet ended and that meatpacking workers continue to remain particularly vulnerable to infection.

Those workers, largely immigrant and Latino, work shoulder to shoulder and across from one another on rapidly-moving production lines.

Some 7,382 meat processing workers in Nebraska have tested positive for the virus since inception of the pandemic, resulting in 256 hospitalizations and 28 deaths. 

Although the wave of infection has eased and most plants have instituted basic protections, variants of the virus have introduced new challenges in recent months. 

Vargas, who represents a South Omaha legislative district that is largely Latino and heavily populated by meatpacking worker families, lost his father to COVID-19 in New York City last year.

His motion to advance the bill was submitted "in honor of my dad."

The amended version of the bill proposes basic measures to keep workers safe, he said, including reconfiguration of lunch rooms, break rooms and locker room space to allow 6 feet of distancing, if possible, along with requirements for employers to provide face masks, frequent sanitizing, temperature checks and testing for employees.

Sen. Julie Slama of Peru led opposition to the measure, suggesting that some provisions might conflict with federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards while other proposals could be impossible to achieve.

Workers already have access to COVID-19 vaccines, she said, and "the majority of them have been fully vaccinated."

Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair expressed some concerns about "how far is too far" to go in proposing restrictions, suggesting he would like to "err on the side of liberty."

A number of opponents said meatpacking plants in their districts already are complying with recommended new safety standards while the rate of positive coronavirus cases has dramatically slowed down.

On the other hand, a number of proponents pointed to the new challenges that may be raised by variants of the virus and a reduction in precautions.

"No one is demonizing the industry," Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha told his colleagues.

"This is about the worker; this is where my beliefs, my faith, meets policy," he said.

While many plants have responded to the challenge, Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island said, "there are still bad players out there."

For Vargas, one of two Latino senators -- the other is Aguilar -- advancement of the bill was a breakthrough in his determined efforts to protect meatpacking workers.

Last year, as the virus swept through meat processing plants, his proposals to mandate safety measures were rebuffed.

If his current bill ultimately gains legislative enactment, it would need 30 votes to overcome a potential gubernatorial veto. 

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

On Twitter @LJSdon

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