Nebraska’s meatpacking plants won’t have to worry about any new safety restrictions this year, despite outbreaks of the coronavirus among their workers, after a state lawmaker on July 29 failed to secure enough support for the idea.
Sen. Tony Vargas, of Omaha, fell two votes short of the 30 he needed to introduce a bill in the waning days of the 2020 session. The Legislature’s rules only allow new bills to be introduced during the first 10 days of each session, unless a super-majority of lawmakers agrees to suspend the rule. July 29 was the 51st day of this year’s 60-day session.
Lawmakers voted 28-10 to allow the new proposal.
Many of Nebraska’s meatpacking plants were forced to temporarily shutter their operations earlier this year after they became among the nation’s biggest coronavirus hot spots. In May, state officials acknowledged that nearly one in six coronavirus cases in Nebraska had been linked to a meatpacking plant.
Conservative lawmakers argued that a new bill wasn’t necessary because Nebraska’s plants have since taken steps to protect their workers, seeking guidance from infectious disease experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center on how to safely operate.
The companies say they have introduced measures such as social-distancing and plastic barriers that separate employees who work close together.
Sen. Steve Erdman, of Bayard, said one company official told him that many infected workers caught the virus outside of work. Some Midwestern politicians have made similar arguments that workers living in crowded homes bear some blame.
Other lawmakers expressed skepticism about the bill, but said it deserves a public hearing given the virus’s impact.
“I’d hate to be the one to keep it from even being considered,” said Sen. Mike Moser, of Columbus.
Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, said after the vote that lawmakers “just spat in the face” of meatpacking workers who are putting their health at risk during the pandemic.
Vargas represents a large number of meatpacking workers in his south Omaha district, and his father died earlier this year after contracting the coronavirus. He acknowledged that his bill faces long odds in Nebraska’s conservative Legislature, but argued that a public hearing would allow workers, advocates and the plants to discuss what’s being done.
“I am pleading with you,” he said in a floor speech to his colleagues. “This will send a very direct message to the state.”
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