Read The Reader‘s past coverage of the meatpacking industry:
This past week, (Oct. 27) the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis conducted a hearing about the failure of the meatpacking industry to protect its workers throughout the ongoing pandemic. Among those who testified in Washington D.C was Rose Godinez, a civil rights attorney for the ACLU of Nebraska and the daughter of meatpacking plant workers in Lexington, Nebraska. Reporting from Nebraska, Emily Chen-Newton spoke to Rose Godinez after the hearing about the safety standards she hopes Congress will push the Biden Administration and OSHA to implement.
Both of Rose’s parents are retired from the plants now and they were with her as she testified in front of Congress. This issue is personal for Rose who remembers her parents coming home late and missing holidays because they had to work at the plants.Rose remembers when she was a child her parents coming home exhausted from working at the plants.
In Nebraska alone, at least 7,000 workers have tested positive for coronavirus. Statewide, 60% of all COVID-19 cases last summer were among the state’s Hispanic population which only makes up 11% of the population as a whole, said Rose Godinez in her testimony. Nationally, the estimate currently lands at more than 59,000 infected workers, a number gathered by reporting from the House Subcommittee. This number is nearly three times greater than what was originally estimated, and still is understood to be a gross understatement because it comes from the data of only the five largest companies, and not the whole industry.
Up to this point there has been no state regulation of COVID-19 safety standards for the meatpacking industry, nor has the federal Occupational Safety and Hazards Administration (OSHA) imposed standards for the plants. Former OSHA Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor Debbie Berkowitz spoke about the agency’s lack of action.“OSHA totally abandoned its mission, they went AWOL, they looked the other way.”
Rose Godinez urged Congress to pressure the Biden Administration which can then put pressure on OSHA to create Temporary Emergency Standards similar to those put in place for healthcare workers recently. These are basic COVID-19 safety precautions such as ensuring workers are able to maintain proper social distance while indoors, and being informed when they have been in close contact with another worker who’s tested positive for the disease. Rose says paid time off should also be included because workers need time to get the COVID-19 vaccine and/or time to recover from the disease if they contract it.
The standards that Rose hopes to see OSHA put forth are essentially the same basic safety tenets that Nebraska Senator, Tony Vargas (who lost his father to the virus), has been trying to get signed into Nebraska law since mid-2020. If OSHA does set such standards, it would accomplish on a national level what advocates say the state has not been able to do for its workers thus far— protect them. But for Rose, the conversation about worker safety in the meatpacking plants is about more than the short-term safety standards that OSHA could offer.
The industry is “well aware” of the vulnerability of those who depend on work-visas, says Rose.
Rose sees reforms like a pathway to citizenship for all essential workers as an important part of the conversations about meatpacking plant work safety because, “You are dealing with a particular population that has more at risk than the general population. They’re risking going back to a country that is no longer home. This is home.” She says the industry has been aware of this for a long time and that large meatpacking companies can use tactics like threats to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to keep employees silent about their unsafe work conditions.
NOISE is an Omaha based Black-led news outlet focused on recapturing the narrative of Omaha’s historically Black communities and Black Nebraskans. Drawing from current events, history and direct feedback from our neighbors, we work to provide content relevant to people’s everyday lives that is just as nuanced as the people we represent.