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Nebraska Unicameral weighs in on COVID-19 protection in slaughter plants

USDA meat processing packing plant USDA FDS.jpg
Bill would require certain COVID-19 protections for meatpacking workers in Nebraska.

Of all the 50 states, Nebraska, my home state, is unique in that it is the only state with a Unicameral.

The state has 49 state Senators elected without regard to political party. In a November election you may have a Republican running against a fellow Republican, or a Democrat vs. another Democrat.

It all depends on the prevailing politics of the district they are running in.

So without a two house government, there is no need for compromises to be made between a Senate and a House of Representatives.

Things tend to move fast. That can be good if you want action today, and that can be bad if you are asleep at the wheel and did not see the final vote coming at 11 p.m. on the final day of the annual session.

Nebraska sets its budget for two-year intervals.

It sets the length of the Unicameral sessions based on when the budget gets debated and voted on.

In the year that the budget is set, the session is 60 days. Period. No extensions possible.

The alternate session is 45 days with no exceptions.

This year is the 60-day budget session, except the Speaker of the House sent them all packing in mid-March because of COVID.

They are now back in session with social distancing, masks and, I hope, frequent hand washing.

When they reconvened July 20, Senator Tony Vargas introduced a bill that would require certain COVID-19 protections for meatpacking workers in Nebraska.

The bill would require, among other things, 6 ft. of social distancing between workers, slower line speeds, staggered shifts and masks.

Some background on the senator is important to know for this blog.

First and foremost, his father died from COVID this spring at the age of 72. His father immigrated to New York City from Peru.

Secondly, Sen. Vargas lives in southeast Omaha, a very Democratic leaning portion of the city called “Little Italy.”

Back in the day, southeast Omaha was home to the second largest stockyard in America, and home to slaughter houses with names like Swift, Cudahy, Armour and Wilson followed by Greater Omaha Packing.

Southeast Omaha was also home to Eastern Europeans who came to Nebraska with dreams of independence and wealth but instead found working conditions that spawned Upton Sinclair’s book called “The Jungle.”

Now the packing plants that have followed in Nebraska are mostly staffed with Hispanic labor.

Vargas is the first Hispanic to be elected to the Unicameral on his first try.

Sen. Ray Aguilar was appointed by Gov. Mike Johanns to fill an empty seat 20 or so years ago and was the first Hispanic to serve in the Unicameral.

So the effort to protect Hispanics and others working in the meat industry, following successful efforts in Michigan and Virginia, was introduced and failed to garner the 30 necessary votes to be introduced and granted a hearing at such a late stage in the 60-day process.

In a Unicameral, there is no second body or second chance to advance a bill that failed its first try.

Nebraska had a rocky start at the beginning of this pandemic with local hot spots of high numbers of cases in South Sioux City, Grand Island and Lexington, all locations of very large beef packing plants. Most closed for a short time while the companies sanitized and installed plexi glass shields to separate workers as best they could.

The companies also took other Center for Disease Control & Prevention recommended measures like face masks and/or shields, social distancing in locker and break rooms and hand sanitizers.

The total as of Aug. 3 stood at over 5,000 workers infected, over 200 hospitalized and 21 dead.

There are probably a couple of good reasons, besides the unique characteristics of a Unicameral, why Nebraska’s effort failed while similar efforts succeeded in Virginia and Michigan.

Nebraska is the number one producer of beef by weight, with live weight of cattle to slaughter reaching 955 million pounds in 2019 compared to number 2 Texas at 643 million pounds.

Pounds of meat produced for consumption were 11.5 billion, or 9% of America’s total.

Nebraska slaughtered 22% of all cattle killed in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As for live beef cows on the hoof, Texas had 4.5 million and Nebraska was fourth at 2 million, closely following Missouri and Oklahoma at a little over 2 million each.

Michigan is hardly a player in this industry with only 102,000 head.

Virginia had 633,000 head.

Texas has the most beef in feedlots, Nebraska is number two.

In Nebraska, 2.7% of the workforce is employed in the slaughter and processing of meat.

Nearly 26,000 were employed in that industry, higher than any other state in the slaughter plants.

Those are a few reasons to not strangle an economy all the way down from a cattle producer with no market for his steers to the consumer with meat shortages and higher prices.

However, one reason that was stated is not valid.

Sen. Steve Erdman from Bayard, Neb., way out west in the cattle country of the Sand Hills, was quoted as saying “the virus is not spreading in the meatpacking facilities,” it is the crowded living that leads to “getting infected outside the plant.”

Spoken by a rancher whose closest neighbor may be five miles down the road from him.

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