Nebraska rejects mandated virus protections for meat workers

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers rejected state-mandated coronavirus protections for meatpacking workers on Tuesday, with opponents arguing that slaughterhouses have already taken precautions and that the pandemic is nearly over.

Lawmakers voted, 25-18, to sideline the measure for the rest of the year, even though supporters said it was necessary to ensure that all plants are keeping their employees safe.

“It’s not whether or not a plant cares about their employees,” said Sen. Tony Vargas, of Omaha, who sponsored the bill. “There is a need for consistency.”

The bill faced an uphill battle because of opposition from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who said Monday that it wasn’t needed. Lawmakers narrowly advanced the measure through an initial vote earlier this month, but supporters at the time fell three votes short of the 30 they would have needed to override a veto.

Nebraska’s meatpacking companies complained that the bill imposes unrealistic mandates on the industry, including a requirement to maintain a 6-foot distance between employees in break and locker rooms.

“It’s just not workable,” said Sen. Julie Slama, of Peru.

But Sen. Ray Aguilar, of Grand Island, said he’s spoken with workers who are still fearful about working in plants and want protections in place for one more year, as the bill would have mandated.

Sen. Matt Hansen, of Lincoln, said it’s too early to celebrate the end of the pandemic and assume that the workers will be safe.

“The place we are at is tenuous,” he said.

An estimated 7,382 Nebraska meatpacking workers have tested positive since the pandemic began, 256 have been hospitalized and 28 have died. Early in the pandemic, several Nebraska meatpacking towns were considered coronavirus hotspots. Ricketts and other governors said cases were spiking because workers lived together in close quarters.

Sen. Steve Erdman, of Bayard, said meatpacking plants instituted pandemic safety protections voluntarily, including temperature checks, masks for employees and metal dividers between line workers.

“We have missed the mark when we think government is the answer to everything,” he said.

Lawmakers also gave initial approval to a bill that would allow immigrants who are legally authorized to work in the United States to collect pandemic unemployment benefits.

The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Mike McDonnell, of Omaha, said Nebraska was the last state in the nation to adopt the policy. The bill advanced, 26-9, through the first of three required votes with no debate.

“This is about fairness,” McDonnell said.

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