On Jan. 27, Minnesota lawmakers and members of UFCW Locals 9 and 663 introduced new legislation to improve workplace safety at meatpacking and food processing plants. The Minnesota Safe Workplaces for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers Act, authored by Rep. Dan Wolgamott of St. Cloud, 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 members of UFCW Local 9 and 663 work at meatpacking plants in Austin, Worthington and other communities throughout the state.
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.
The Minnesota Safe Workplaces for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers Act creates a brand new “Workers’ Rights Coordinator” position housed within the Department of Labor and Industry 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.
The proposed legislation also requires employers to provide personal protective equipment 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. The proposed legislation also prohibits 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, and requires employers to post all the rights, as well as training manuals, in the language of fluency for workers every year.
“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.”
“Every day, me and my coworkers put our lives on the line when we go to work,” said Antonio Jimenez, a UFCW Local 663 member who works at JBS in Worthington. “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.”
“Our local represents packing workers at Hormel and QPP in Austin,” said UFCW Local 9 President Rich Morgan. “I was involved in the 2007 Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights legislation. At the onset, Matt Utecht and I, along with our staff members, had conversations and a meeting with the Minnesota Department of Labor, and they used parts of the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights to help formulate some of their guidelines for supplying personal protective equipment and other measures. But we realized more needed to be done to keep workers across the state safe since worker shortages are sometimes leading to short cuts, causing injuries and ergonomic issues. The Minnesota Safe Workplaces for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers Act is common sense legislation.”
“We represent meatpacking workers in Worthington and across the state in Minnesota,” said President of UFCW Local 663 Matthew Utecht. “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,” Utecht added. “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.”