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Activists urging leaders to enforce safer conditions for packing plant workers

Published: Dec. 4, 2020 at 9:02 PM CST
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GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (KSNB) - Several activist groups set up billboards across the state to send more than just a message. They hope to persuade state leaders and packing plants to protect workers from unsafe practices during the coronavirus pandemic.

“At this moment we have the billboards in Omaha, in Lexington, Hastings, two in Grand Island, one in Spanish and one in English,” said Solidarity with Packing Plant Workers Organizer Gladys Godinez.

Solidarity With Packing Plant Workers, Nebraska ACLU, Nebraska Appleseed, Jobs with Justice, and Mothers and Others hope these signs will persuade state leaders and packing plants to enforce safer working conditions.

“Unfortunately our governor has not done any actions in regards to taking care of our essential workers and the opposite of that. He has hidden behind the numbers,”Godinez said

Activists demand all workers get paid-time-off during quarantine, they want packing plants to be more transparent in regards to the amount of positive cases at their facilities, and they also want leaders to provide more adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers.

“I have seen images of individuals triple layering their masks with additional coating so that they can work and don’t get that blood on their face, but that worries me as well because can you imagine trying to breathe,” Godinez said.

They urge the state and the people in power to take action.

“The responsibility actually for regulating food processors does not lie with the state, it relies with OSHA, that’s a federal organization,” said Governor Ricketts during a press briefing on Friday. “We were doing this on a non-regulatory basis - we were successful in reducing the number of cases going there, we addressed thing like air handling, masking, screening and so forth, and we did it all very successfully.”

Micky Devitt, a legal and policy coordinator for the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha, believes under OSHA law the governor has the authority to intercede since OSHA has no involuntary statutes regulating packing plants at this time.

“There is no conflict with OSHA whatsoever, and OSHA did not have enforceable standards that would have conflicted with anything we had done at the state level,” she said.

Under Sec. 18 of OSHA Act of 1970: “Nothing in this Act shall prevent any State agency or court from asserting jurisdiction under State law over any occupational safety or health issue with respect to which no standard is in effect under section 6.”

Activists believe the state needs to do more to protect packing plant workers who risk their lives to keep Nebraskans fed.

“We’re a group of advocates, we’re community members that are worried about our community, we’re worried about our aunts, uncles, fathers, grandparents,” Godinez said. “A lot of community members are family members of the individuals that are in those plants taking that risk because they don’t see any other way.”

In a statement given exclusively to Local4, JBS USA Regional Headquarters said:

“Our focus throughout the pandemic has been keeping our team members safe and healthy. Since February, we have fundamentally changed the way we do business in response to coronavirus. We have implemented hundreds of safety interventions in Grand Island and are following, often times exceeding, all CDC and OSHA-issued guidance with regard to safety and social distancing.

We have aggressively implemented free, random surveillance testing of asymptomatic team members across our U.S. facilities. We closely monitor community case rates, community positivity rates and internal testing data on a daily basis. Our $5 million investment in surveillance testing allows us to quickly identify potential introduction of COVID-19 from the community into our plants and mitigate spread through immediate quarantine and contact tracing procedures. We also believe surveillance testing gives us the opportunity to continually assess and validate the effectiveness of our preventive measures and entrance screening protocols as the virus continues to spread across the country. To date, we have conducted more than 20,000 random surveillance tests of asymptomatic team members.

In Grand Island, we have voluntarily removed high-risk team members with full pay and benefits as part of our vulnerable population policy. Across all of our U.S. facilities, we have removed more than 5,000 people, or approximately 8% of the workforce, with full pay and benefits during the most recent wave that is spreading across the country. In some cases, we may simplify the mix of products in a plant to accommodate the voluntary reduction in staff and maintain plant safety, but our customers, clients and union partners have been very understanding and supportive of our efforts to protect the workforce.

We also recently enhanced our health benefits to retroactively cover 100% of all COVID-19 related health expenses for our team members and their family members enrolled in our health insurance plan. With implementation of this policy, which is retroactive to March, no JBS USA team member enrolled in our plan will pay an out-of-pocket health expense associated with coronavirus.

Here is a list of some of the preventive measures adopted in Grand Island:

· Temperature testing all team members prior to entering facilities, including the use of hands-free thermometers and thermal imaging testing technology;

· Providing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), including face shields and protective masks, which are required to be worn at all times;

· Conducting health screenings for anyone entering the facility;

· Increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms, including dividers in common areas and on the production floor;

· Promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts and breaks;

· Increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts, including whole facility deep-cleaning every day;

· Hiring dedicated staff whose only job is to continuously clean facilities, including common areas beyond the production floor;

· Hiring staff to assist with education, training and enforcement of COVID-19 preventive measures;

· Using ultraviolet (UV) germicidal air sanitation and plasma air technology to neutralize potential viruses in plant ventilation and air purification systems;

· Conducting random, routine surveillance testing of asymptomatic team members

· Requiring sick team members to stay home from work;

· Covering 100% of COVID-19 health expenses for team members and their dependents enrolled in the company’s health plan;

· Waiving short-term disability waiting periods;

· Offering free LiveHealth Online services for team members enrolled in the company’s health plan that allow for virtual doctor visits at no cost;

· Educating and encouraging team members to practice social distancing at home and in the community outside of work; and

· Restricting access to the facility.

During the pandemic, JBS USA has invested more than $200 million in health and safety measures to protect our workforce, more than $160 million in increased wages and bonuses, and $50 million to support our local communities through our Hometown Strong initiative, including $3.5 million in Grand Island. These are the voluntary investments we have made, not the increased operational costs we have incurred due to the pandemic.”

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