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.