Minnesota lawmakers, meatpacking workers announce proposed legislation to improve job safety

State lawmakers and meatpacking workers from Worthington, St. Cloud and Austin announced new proposed legislation on Wednesday to improve safety on the job for the workers employed by meatpacking 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 (DFL-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,” Wolgamott said in a statement. “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.”

More from KSTP:

As outbreak simmered, emails show pork plant resisted testing and government withheld information

Minnesota meatpacking towns face unique economic threat from COVID-19

Meatpacking safety recommendations are largely unenforceable

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. According to a release, it was a positive measure, however, it has not proven adequate to protect the safety and rights of meatpacking workers, before or during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyday myself and my coworkers put our lives on the line when we go to work," Antonio Jimenez, UFCW Local 663 member who works at JBS in Worthington, said. "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.”

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.

The proposal also 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.

Dates and times for the proposal’s first committee hearings are expected to be announced soon, which will give Minnesotans an opportunity to provide public comments and questions.