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SB 145: Protect Meatpacking Workers from Coronavirus, Bad Ergonomics, and Retaliatory Bosses

Our legislature has hoghoused—i.e., “amended extensively“—just two bills so far. But Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-15/Sioux Falls) is proposing an honest-to-goodness hoghouse bill to make work safer at South Dakota’s slaughterhouses.

Senate Bill 145 is a tour de force of practical Legislative problem-solving, adding 28 new provisions to SDCL Title 40 on Animals and Livestock to “provide protections and workplace safety for meat and poultry processing workers.” SB 145 applies to all meat-processing employers that employ 100 or more workers; it does not apply to grocery stores, restaurants, delis, or other businesses that prepare meat for immediate consumption. SB 145 is Senator Nesiba’s response to the failure of Smithfield Foods to protect thousands of workers and their families in Nesiba’s district from the coronavirus pandemic as well as the perennial injurious working conditions of meatpacking plants.

Sections 22 through 27 of SB 145 address the immediate public health emergency caused by covid-19. Section 23 would require meatpackers to prevent the risk of spreading coronavirus by spacing out work stations to keep workers at least six feet apart. It would require everyone in slaughterhouses to mask up except in places like offices where folks work alone, and it would require the employer to provide free a steady supply of masks and face shields for all workers. Section 23 requires clean restrooms with hot and cold running water and paper towels and adequate break time for workers to use those restrooms and to wash their hands and don and doff protection equipment [note: I may automatically vote for any bill that uses the phrase “don and doff”]. Section 23 requires the employer to provide gloves, and other personal protective equipment and training on how to keep everyone safe and healthy during the pandemic.

The pandemic-specific portions of Senate Bill 145 include a number of provisions that could be useful well beyond the current pandemic. Section 23 requires that each big meatpacker create a health and safety committee with equal representation of management, workers, and authorized employee representatives. Section 23 authorizes that health and safety committee as well as the Department of Labor and Regulation to demand employer records on injuries and illnesses at the slaughterhouse. Section 23 guarantees paid sick time for workers to recover from illness or injury or to care for sick relatives. Section 24 guarantees a minimum of one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked (that would be about 67 hours of sick time for a year of full time work) with full carryover from year to year of unused sick time. Section 25 says workers keep their earned sick time if they are transferred to new positions, if they are separated from work then rehired within one year, or if the plant is taken over by a new owner. Section 26 says employers can’t make paid sick leave contingent on employees’ finding someone to take their shifts or surrendering private information to their employers.

While those protections would end the moment the federal government follows Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and decides coronavirus is no longer a public health emergency, the rest of Senate Bill 145 creates permanent protections for meatpacking workers and public health. Section 4 establishes that workers have the right to refuse to work “under conditions that the worker reasonably believes would expose the worker, other workers, or the public to an unreasonable risk of illness or injury, or that causes the worker, other workers, or the public illness or injury.” Section 4 says such workers may keep their jobs and pay and prohibits employers from discriminating or taking adverse action against employees who refuse to work in unsafe conditions and ask their employers to correct hazards. Employers who do so retaliate must fully reinstate and compensate any punished workers and give each worker $5,000 or double the actual damages, whichever is greater, plus punitive damages.

Section 6 protects whistleblowers who alert the employer, the government, or the public of problems with health and safety practices at the meatpacking plant. It excludes non-disclosure agreements that would preclude such whistleblowing. Companies violating that free-speech protection could pay lost wages, treble damages, lawyer fees and costs, and a $25,000 fine to the Department of Labor and Regulation.

Section 12 allows meatpacking workers who quit over uncorrected health or safety hazards to receive unemployment benefits. Section 12 allows those benefits to continue if the meatpacker offers to hire them back but has not resolved the hazardous conditions, if the workers must take care of kids whose schools have been closed by a public health emergency, or must take care of seriously ill or quarantined family members during a public health emergency.

SB 145 creates one new state official to monitor and defend these worker rights, a “meatpacking industry worker rights coordinator” under the Secretary of Labor and Regulation. This new worker rights coordinator can enter and inspect meatpacking facilities any time workers are present. The coordinator also gets subpoena power to carry out official duties or respond to complaints. The coordinator must report to the Legislature annually and recommend actions to “promote better treatment of workers by meat-processing employers.”

SB 145 also requires each meatpacker to create a safe worker program and a committee dedicated to minimizing and preventing musculoskeletal disorders. That committee, consisting of an ergonomist, a physician, and at least three workers, must identify ergonomic hazards at work, review data on hazards and injuries at least four times a year, and produce a written plan to prevent and control the injuries workers may suffer from poorly designed equipment and processes. Meatpacking employers must support this plan by educating its workers about the plan and the hazards identified and giving workers safety training on the clock during standard working hours before they begin new jobs. Section 18 mandates eight hours of safety training for each employee per year, with at least two hours dedicated to the ergonomic injury prevention program. Meatpackers must record all worker visits to medical or first-aid personnel, maintain records of ergonomic injuries for at least five years, and make such records available to the worker rights coordinator.

Republicans will kill this bill immediately, because it puts worker rights above the Freedom™ of corporations to exploit labor like a soulless natural resource. Of course, Republicans who want to avoid being called enemies of labor could try rejecting Senate Bill 145 on the technicality of the single-subject rule: meat and poultry, disease and musculoskeletal injury, labor rights and public health…. But hey, if Governor Noem doesn’t have to follow the single-subject rule to write her campaign slogans into bills, why should the Legislature hold Senator Nesiba to such a silly and subjective restriction when he’s trying to protect his constituents from real disease and injury?

Senate Bill 145 awaits the attention of Senate Commerce and Energy. While I could entertain a hoghouse of this bill to apply these worker protections beyond meatpacking to all crowded workplaces that pose risks of pandemic spread or injury from repetitive motion and mechanical operations, Senate Commerce and Energy will most likely quickly kill the bill… or maybe hoghouse it to send more corporate welfare checks to the meatpacking lobby.

17 Comments

  1. Nick Nemec 2022-02-07 06:50

    Sadly this bill will meet a swift death.

  2. Matthew k 2022-02-07 07:13

    If this was too pass you would ether pay twice as much for meat or more and complain about it

  3. Richard Schriever 2022-02-07 07:52

    Matthew K – Puzzle me this; My dad worked at Morell (Smithfield) for 25 years. Union man the whole way. Benefits for workers then compared to now – well, let’s just say there is no comparison. The sorts of committees proposed by this bill existed then under the union contract.

    Let’s assume meat prices since the early 80’s (when he retired with a full pension – something also lacking for today’s workers) have risen proportionate to inflation in general. So today’s $7/lb. top round would have been @ $2.15/LB. Which is about accurate as far as i recall.

    IF employees pay had risen at the same rate of inflation, the hourly pay there would be @ $64/hr. Today’s workers don’t earn 1/3 of that.

    What is it that drives the retail price of meat again?

  4. Nick Nemec 2022-02-07 08:33

    Obviously if meat packers had to provide a fresh N-95 mask to every employee every shift meat packers would have to double the price of meat.

    Herein lies the logic of the anti worker movement.

  5. larry kurtz 2022-02-07 08:40

    If livestock grazing is the key to preventing wildfires why is ranch country still suffering from near daily high even extreme grassland fire danger indices?

    Because of the deleterious impacts of livestock production on the environment plant-based diets are replacing animal protein in much of the world and even in the United States as eaters learn the levels of glyphosate, a known endocrine disruptor found in corn sugars and other small grains, is incompatible with human life.

    Warnings of drought coming from the National Weather Service and US Army Corps of Engineers are prompting farmers to plant less corn. Ethanol being grown for motor fuel is produced by burning diesel fuel. How is that either conservative or sustainable? The number of acres in agroecosystems has tripled since the 1940s but ag practices like tiling have made soils unable to absorb rainfall creating elevated levels of salinity and concentrated animal feeding operations contribute to nutrient runoff.

    Today the Chinese ring-necked pheasant isn’t wildlife but it is a canary in a chemically and genetically engineered corn mine. Pulse crops like lentils, split peas, pintos, black beans and chickpeas or garbanzo beans are legumes that replace lost nitrogen in corn-damaged soils.

    Farm to table is now.

  6. O 2022-02-07 10:11

    Richard raises a most important point: where is the money going? It is not going to the producers; it is not going to the workers; so where IS it going? It is the root of discussion when we talk about “the economy” doing well. The measures we look t at the measures of the 1%’s wealth. We tend to look far less at the general measures of people doing well. In fact, at the moment that wages nudge up a bit for the 99%, we hear alarm bells of inflation – something that we did not consider or worry about when the billionaires increased there wealth by trillions during the pandemic.

    The US economy is broken — which is an indication that the US democracy is broken.

  7. larry kurtz 2022-02-07 10:23

    Could Senator Nesiba win a statewide race? SoS, PUC, Auditor?

  8. jerry 2022-02-07 10:41

    Well, the EU, once again, seems to have the right idea.

    “The European Union provides farmers with income support or ‘direct payments’ to:

    function as a safety net and make farming more profitable;
    guarantee food security in Europe;
    assist them in the production of safe, healthy and affordable food;
    reward farmers for delivering public goods not normally paid for by markets, such as taking care of the countryside and the environment.
    Farmers generally receive income support based on their farm’s size in hectares. All EU countries have to offer a basic payment, a payment for sustainable farming methods (‘greening’) and a payment for young farmers. As it is compulsory for EU countries to provide these payments, they are often referred to as obligatory payments.

    Additionally, EU countries can choose to offer other payments that focus on specific sectors or types of farming. There are specific schemes designed to help small and medium sized farms, young farmers, farmers who operate in areas of natural constraint and/or sectors undergoing difficulties.” https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/key-policies/common-agricultural-policy/income-support/income-support-explained_en

  9. Jake 2022-02-07 11:16

    Jerry, those EU policies are definitely far-sightedness: ‘scoped in’, focused on the log-term needs of a society.
    But these “obligatory payments” here in the US would be called a ‘tax’ by Republicans and tax to a
    republican is a four-letter word normally associated with vullgar talk. Yet, lawful “give-aways” to billionaires by republicans are called what again? “Tax breaks” for the wealthy ‘job-creators’!!! So Jeff Bezos happened to get “sick of workin” fer the man”-opened his own Amazon business, became the rid=chest and most undertaxed person on earth? Had a yacht built that can’t make it out to the ocean because it is way too big to go beneath an Amsterdam bridge that just underwent 3 yrs of “re-do” by society to preserve it historically and now he want to tear it down to get his boat to sea! (this yacht, by the way, needs to have its own “tender”, another yacht for support, like an aircraft carrier at sea….. Yep, he needed that tax break, alright. Not to mention a space ride for the fun of it.

  10. jerry 2022-02-07 12:09

    Jake, no what else, retirement, disability, healthcare, just to name a few, all go in with the package. On top of that solidarity and a belief that they can work together. What a concept, eh?

  11. Porter Lansing 2022-02-07 13:13

    Republicans will kill this bill immediately, because it puts worker rights above the Freedom™ of corporations to exploit labor like a soulless natural resource. – CAH

    Upton Sinclair is best known for his 1906 novel The Jungle —an exposé of the meat-packing industry in Chicago which led to the passage of the USA Pure Food and Drug Act.

    Contrary and labor hating legislatures like SD’s are why a strong federal government is necessary.

    “I’m from the state and I’m here to handcuff you.”

  12. Mark Anderson 2022-02-07 16:10

    You know Republicans are wondering about their base and how to help them. The rich white boys don’t really have a clue. Apparently Rubio is trying to come up with something, he was a Mormon and is now a Catholic and he used to be Hispanic so there you go.

  13. Arlo Blundt 2022-02-07 16:18

    Well…back when I was 19, I worked for three weeks during a “hog kill” in a slaughterhouse. Strictly a temporary job…when the “kill” ended so did the job…not a Union position. The work was very physical, 10 hour days (overtime by Thursday noon as I recall, and the pay, even in the temp job was very good for the time (1966)…there was no OSHA in those days so the only protections were in the Union contract. At the end of the day, I was covered in guts and gore, blood from head to foot as I worked “under the floor”…Slaughterhouse work is very tough work, dangerous in some assignments and requiring skills in many other positions..It was noisy and chaotic…all men as I remember. To my mind, Packing plant workers deserve whatever pay and benefits they can get from what was, in those days, an invisible, but domineering management. I’m rather certain conditions haven’t change but, without the Union, have likely gotten much worse. I never went back.

  14. Mary D 2022-02-07 20:37

    Since China owns Smithfield, money will be sent to make sure it doesn’t pass.

  15. Mark Anderson 2022-02-07 23:03

    You know Arlo, I worked in a meatpacking plant one day. They showed me a film,gave me a shot, I got my razor sharp knives and went to make my cuts. After two hours I reacted to my tetanus shot and had a very high fever. My goal was to stay in Vermintown for the summer. Next day after I recovered I went to working construction like my usual summers. I didn’t mind getting the shot, maybe I should have proclaimed my Lutheranism against it but I didn’t
    In Iowa Beef at that time you needed to know Spanish to talk to anyone. Absolutely no training, glad I wasn’t put on the kill floor like you. Everyone should experience it.

  16. Arlo Blundt 2022-02-07 23:05

    Back when I had my brief brush with the Meat Packing Industry it was a pathway to the middle class to be employed in those plants. The workers were mostly over 40 years old, had pick ups, boats and wanted a lake cabin. Today most of those workers are young refugees or immigrants in their 20’s, from Mexico or Central America and a surprising number from Southeast Asia, learning English as a second language, renting their abode and grasping at the American Dream and holding on by their fingernails. Senator Nesiba is to be commended for standing up for the underdog. The bill has no chance of becoming law. The Republicans take joy in kicking down.

  17. Arlo Blundt 2022-02-07 23:10

    Oddly enough Mark, I once met the fella who owned Iowa Beef (and Foremost Foods). A multi millionaire and a dreadful human being. During my time at USD I passed on being a “strike breaker” at South Sioux City….my previous experience ruled out another spin working in a plant.

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