ST. PAUL — When state lawmakers introduced new proposed legislation Wednesday morning that would improve safety in meat and poultry processing plants, local JBS union members were among the first to add their support.
"Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous industries," said United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 663 president Matt Utecht at the Wednesday press conference. "The state of Minnesota must do a better job for workers, and this legislation is a start to that."
The proposed Minnesota Safe Workplaces for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers Act, authored by District 14B Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, would provide paid leave to all meat and poultry processing workers so they may recuperate from an illness or injury or to care for an ailing family member. It also calls for the creation of a brand new position within the Department of Labor and Industry (DLI), a Workers' Rights Coordinator, whose job it would be to investigate and prosecute violations of workers’ rights with the help of the attorney general, a district attorney, or any city or county attorney.
The proposal includes a section dedicated to preventing COVID-19 outbreaks within processing facilities, using the following precautions:
- Employers must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) at no cost to employees
- All frequent-use surfaces, workstations and training rooms must be disinfected regularly
- Employees must be given paid sick and family leave, so they don't have to choose between staying safe from COVID and providing for their families
Additionally, the proposed law 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.
"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," Utecht said. "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," he added.
Antonio Jimenez, who has worked at JBS Worthington for 26 years, also voiced his support for the legislation.
"Every day myself and my co-workers put our lives on the line when we go to work," he said. "I was here in the plant when the COVID 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."
Utecht provided some background on workers' experience at the onset of the pandemic.
"JBS certainly needed some prodding when the pandemic first broke out ... to get on board with social distancing and proper safety precautions necessary in that facility," he said.
It is yet unknown whether JBS will back the Minnesota Safe Workplaces for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers Act, but Utecht expects to find out soon.