Minnesota lawmakers and meatpacking workers from Worthington, St. Cloud, and Austin announced new legislation today to improve safety on the job for the men and women employed by meat packing and food processing plants. The proposal would provide paid leave to all meat and poultry processing workers to recuperate from an illness, injury or to care for an ill family member. The “Minnesota Safe Workplaces for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers Act” is authored by Rep. Dan Wolgamott of St. Cloud.
“When COVID-19 first hit Central Minnesota in the spring of 2020, I heard heartbreaking and horrifying stories from my constituents about the unhealthy working conditions at meat processing plants that were jeopardizing the health and financial well being of their families,” said Rep. Wolgamott. “That’s why I’m introducing the Minnesota Safe Workplaces for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers Act, which provides comprehensive workplace health and safety protections, and ensures workers have access to the benefits and training needed to work safely during this pandemic and beyond.”
In 2007, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights which requires employers to provide meatpacking workers with information about their rights as workers and adequate safety equipment. The Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights was a positive measure, however, it has not proven adequate to protect the safety and rights of meatpacking workers, before or during the time of COVID-19.
“Everyday myself and my coworkers put our lives on the line when we go to work. I was here at the plant when the COVID-19 outbreak happened. No one ever wants that to happen again. This legislation is about safety, not just about me but for all the meatpacking workers in the state,” said Antonio Jimenez, UFCW Local 663 member who works at JBS in Worthington.
This proposal creates a brand new “Workers’ Rights Coordinator'' position housed within the Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI) dedicated to enforcement and compliance. This individual would be given the ability to investigate and prosecute violations of workers’ rights with the help of the attorney general, a district attorney, or any city or county attorney.
“We represent meatpacking workers in Worthington and across the state in Minnesota. Worker safety is the most important issue. It took a worldwide pandemic to pull back the curtain for the public to really see inside the packing plants and see the dangerous work that takes place in there. The workers have been long forgotten, not really given a second thought by the public until the pandemic struck and the media took notice. These essential workers in Worthington, along with all meatpacking and poultry workers throughout the state, risk their health and expose their families to additional risk to be able to put food on the table for Minnesota families. The Minnesota Safe Workplaces for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers Act would provide comprehensive workplace health and safety protections and ensure workers have access to the benefits and training needed to work safely as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” said Matthew Utecht, president of UFCW Local 663.
The proposal includes a section dedicated to addressing and preventing COVID-19 outbreaks that have occurred at factories in Minnesota. It requires employers to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) at no cost to employees; allow meat and poultry processing workers adequate break time to sanitize and wash hands; routinely clean and disinfect all frequently touched surfaces, workstations, and training rooms; and provide paid leave to all meat and poultry processing workers to recuperate from an illness, injury or to care for an ill family member.
“Every Minnesotan deserves a safe workplace,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman. “Meat and poultry processing workers are among those on the frontlines of this pandemic, and they have suffered some of the worst COVID outbreaks. We must protect these workers' right to a safe working environment, now and into the future.”
Equity-centered worker protections would prohibit employers from discriminating or taking an adverse employment action against a worker, including the threat of reporting a worker's current or suspected immigrations status. The proposal also requires employers to post all the rights as well as training manuals in the language of fluency for workers every year.
“The people who work in Minnesota’s meat packing and food processing plants are largely immigrants and New Americans with little to no economic security,” said Majority Leader Ryan Winkler. “These are moms and dads who are raising families, want to build a better life, and get ahead. It’s dangerous work and as a state we should be able to come together to protect their health and safety, whether we are in a global pandemic or not.”
Rep. Wolgamott will soon announce dates and times for the proposal’s first committee hearings, which will give Minnesotans an opportunity to provide public comments and ask questions.