Meatpacking COVID Protections Heard; "Decoupling" From Federal Tax Breaks Debated

Aug. 6, 2020, 6:46 p.m. ·

Sen. Tony Vargas testifies Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Advocates, workers and union officials testified at a hearing Thursday in favor of requiring protections for meatpacking workers. And lawmakers debated a proposal to not follow the federal government’s lead in giving a tax break to businesses hit by the coronavirus.

Sen. Tony Vargas is sponsoring the proposal to require greater protections for meatpacking workers facing the COVID-19 pandemic. Vargas said about 20 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases so far have occurred among meatpacking workers, who are largely nonwhite.

“If you look at the county breakdown of COVID-19 cases in the state of Nebraska, every county with a meatpacking plant in it is at the top of the list. The vast majority of meatpacking plant workers are also not white. Most are Latino. Many are from South Sudan or Bhutan or Karen. And 11 percent of the population of Nebraska is Latino. But when you look at our CCOVID-19 cases, Latinos represent 60 percent of our COVID-19 cases across the state of Nebraska,” Vargas said.

Vargas’s proposal would require safety measures including requiring 6 foot distances between workers, face shields, and face masks replaced as often as necessary. Speaking through interpreter Lazaro Spindola, executive director of the Nebraska Latino American Commission, Araizario Moreno said she was fired from the JBS Swift plant in Grand Island after being injured on the job. Moreno said crowding was among many problems in the plant.

“We have no conditions to work under this current COVID-19 pandemic because we are all bundled together…There is not enough hand sanitizer…They are not put in the appropriate places…Nobody comes to replace the face mask because by 10 in the morning the facemask is all wet and covered in blood,” Moreno said.

No one representing JBS Swift testified at the hearing.

Another former meatpacking worker, Christian Munoz, said his father Rogelio Munoz died from COVID-19 after working at the Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City. Munoz said because his father lived alone, he thinks he became infected at the plant, where he said protective measures like plastic barriers were installed too late.

No one from Tyson Foods testified at the hearing. But in a letter sent to Sen. Matt Hansen, chairman of the committee, Tyson opposed the proposal. The letter said worker safety is the company’s top priority, and cited actions the company has taken, including installing barriers, staggering shifts, and monitoring social distancing.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has said the state has worked closely with meatpackers on implementing guidelines from the CDC and OSHA, as well as sending experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center to advise on best practices.

But Eric Reeder, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 293, told the committee relying on voluntary actions is not enough.

“What you have in front of you in the bill is a first step in helping…It’s not an answer, but it definitely would help move things in the right direction. The employers, as long as they’re not mandated to do something, aren’t going to do it,” Reeder said.

Answering a question from Sen. Steve Lathrop, Eliana Ramirez, whose father worked at Tyson’s in Dakota City, said the six foot distance requirement could require reducing the number of workers on the line by two-thirds. Ramirez said that would be good for safety.

No one at the hearing testified against the proposal. There’s not enough time left in the legislative session for it to be passed as a separate bill, but there could still be an attempt to attach it as an amendment to another proposal.

Earlier Thursday, lawmakers debated a proposal to have the state not follow the federal government’s lead in giving a tax break to businesses. The particular kinds of businesses affect are S-Corporations and limited liability companies, whose income can be treated as part of their owners’ personal income. Part of the CARES Act passed by Congress lets businesses use more of their losses to offset taxes they would otherwise owe. Since Nebraska’s tax system is linked to the federal system, that gives people with S-Corporations or LLCs a break on their state income taxes as well. Sen. Sue Crawford proposed not giving that break, by “decoupling” the state system from the federal when it comes to handling losses. Crawford said the break would hurt state finances.

“This provision costs our state over $82 million this year if we roll in compliance with the federal government. Over $82 million for a tax break for people who make over $500,000 a year,” Crawford said.

Sen. John Stinner opposed decoupling, saying the tax break is needed to help small businesses get back on their feet.

“So you have a restaurant that’s been closed, and that’s an LLC. You’ve got a fitness center that’s been closed because of COVID, and they incur operating losses during the shutdown. They try to get started back up. They need startup capital. They’ve paid in taxes for the last five years. What this allows them to do is go back, file a fast tax (form), get those dollars back into their businesses for liquidity purposes and startup purposes,” Stinner said.

Sen. Mike Hilgers also opposed the idea, saying it was part of a federal effort to help recover from the economic shutdown due to the pandemic, similar to aid to individuals.

“They put increased the economy into a medically-induced coma. They want to survive through the coma. And so they made payments. And one of the things they did for individuals was they made the direct payments to individuals. They increased the unemployment insurance. And what they did for smaller businesses – a variety of things. It’s very complicated, but the ultimate result was it gave liquidity to small businesses,” Hilgers said.

Sen. Mike Groene supported decoupling. He referred to property and corporate tax credits advanced by the Legislature Wednesday.

“We didn’t cut any spending yesterday. We gave more money away. Alright? We gave some credits away. Alright? We’ve gotta pay for that . We’ve gotta pay for that. Because the numbers I see don’t pay for it coming into the next three years, especially next year. We need this $82 million,” Groene said.

The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on the proposal, leaving it doubtful that it will be considered again this year.