Nebraskans Ask for Protections for Meatpacking Workers: "Essential Workers Are Essential Lives"

May 31, 2020, 7:27 p.m. ·

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Hundreds of Nebraskans gathered at the Capitol Sunday to demand more action to protect essential workers, especially those at meatpacking plants.

The Capitol steps filled up long before the rally. Hundreds of people were there for a Black Lives Matter protest later in the afternoon, but eagerly joined the crowd advocating for meatpacking workers.

Maira Mendez says both of her parents work at the Smithfield Foods packing plant in Crete.

Maira Mendez is the daughter of two workers at the Smithfield Foods packing plant in Crete. (Becca Costello, NET News)

"We won’t allow employers and government officials to classify plant workers as essential workers without treating them as essential lives," Mendez said."

She says Gov. Pete Ricketts has not done enough to ensure packing plants are following guidelines recommended by the CDC and OSHA.

And state Sen. Tony Vargas agrees, after listening to the stories of workers.

"Workers are still working too closely on assembly lines," Vargas said. "Their employers are threatening them, saying that if they go to the media or to the public with these experiences they will lose their jobs. And if they are sick, they're encouraged to go to work anyway."

At least 3,000 meatpacking workers in Nebraska have tested positive for COVID-19 and 11 have died.

Advocates say plants didn’t act quickly enough to protect workers and are still prioritizing profit over safety.

Marty Ramirez, a psychologist, says the impact on mental health may be equally devastating.

Sen. Tony Vargas says the struggle is very personal; both his parents worked on assembly lines at one point, and his father recently died with COVID-19. (Becca Costello, NET News)

"What a dilemma to be in: having to choose every day of your life, do I go to work and be at risk for the virus, or do I stay home and not get paid and for many fear being deported," Ramirez said. "What a dilemma. Who can possibly live in their shoes and not be impacted?"

The advocates have a few demands for the plants, like more paid sick leave. And they encouraged Nebraskans to urge public officials to do more.

They want Gov. Ricketts to push the USDA to do in-person inspections to verify safety measures. They also want the state Department of Health and Human Services to publish data about race and ethnicity related to COVID-19.

DHHS did provide some of those details on Friday: Hispanic residents make up about 11% of the statewide population, but 48% of COVID-19 cases. But the data is incomplete and won't be updated and published until the end of June.

And the advocates want to focus on broader change: to protect workers’ rights long after the pandemic has ended.

"Remember, tu lucha es mi lucha," Maira Mendez said. "Your struggle is my struggle."

"Estamos con Ustedes," another protester said. "We are with you."


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