Lincoln Journal Star
Local View: Meatpackers need our help
· WILLIAM AVILÉS
Earlier this week, most Nebraskans celebrated another Labor Day, a holiday that has recognized working people for over 100 years.
When this holiday was enacted into law, in 1894, Americans typically worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, in low-paying and often unsafe jobs. While conditions have substantially improved for working people since that time, the plight of Nebraska’s meatpacking workers suggests that we are not so far removed from this dangerous past as we would like to believe. This has especially been made clear with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Nebraska, since the start of the pandemic, there have been more than 5,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 that have been identified as meatpacking workers.
In addition, 230 of these workers have required hospitalization, and at least 21 have died (more than 100 have died nationally). According to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, these numbers represent an underestimate of the true costs to the men and women who have long sacrificed their bodies doing the difficult and dangerous work that takes place inside these large meat processing facilities.
For years, the rate of meatpacking workers losing time, or changing jobs, because of injury, has been 70% higher than the average for manufacturing workers overall. In 2020, the threat of a deadly virus compounded the risks these workers already faced from the regular violence of their workplace.
Unfortunately, the political and economic leaders of our state have failed, and continue to fail, to protect these individuals.
For example, from the very start of the epidemic, Gov. Pete Ricketts has neither publicly shared information about the number of positive cases in specific plants nor utilized his authority to direct Nebraska’s Department of Labor to periodically inspect the safety of these plants.
Ricketts has made sure that the reputation and profits of his allies among the plant owners and managers would be prioritized over the welfare of the working people central to creating those profits. In addition, companies such as Tyson, JBS and Smithfield were slow in responding to the epidemic, to the detriment of their workforce.
To this very day, they continue to fall short in ensuring that workers have enough PPE, that lines are slowed to ensure social distance or that workers receive adequate testing for COVID-19.
Meatpacking workers continue to need our support and solidarity. This is especially the case when many are too fearful of losing their jobs if they raise too many complaints about their working conditions.
Given this reality it is incumbent upon all of us to do more on their behalf. This not only means continuing to demand that Ricketts and plant managers do more to protect these workers, but that Nebraskans support the work of state senators like Sen. Tony Vargas, who is demanding greater oversight of these plants from Nebraska’s Department of Labor.
On a federal level, we all can do more to pressure U.S. Sens. Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer to support the Heroes Act. The Heroes Act contains a whole series of benefits for essential workers like meatpacking workers. These include over $800 million to states to support the child-care expenses of these workers, greater PPE and hazard pay.
The greater oversight being called for by Senator Vargas and the economic benefits associated with the Heroes Act represent important efforts to protect and assist these workers. These initiatives represent the very least that we can do for Nebraskans who continue to take great risks in ensuring that our ranchers have a market for their cattle and that Americans have quality food on their tables.
William Avilés is a member of Nebraska-based Solidarity with Packing Plant Workers.