Pa. House, Senate bills would mandate protections, sick leave for meatpacking, food processing workers

Meatpacking worker Carmen Dominguez speaks during a Capitol news conference on 4/28/21 (screen capture).

Like hundreds of thousands of Americans, Carmen Dominguez has seen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic up close.

A union steward at a JBS beef plant in Souderton, Montgomery County, Dominguez saw two of her colleagues die from the virus as it began its deadly sweep across the commonwealth last spring.

On Wednesday, she traveled to Harrisburg to make the case for House and Senate bills that she says will provide essential protections for workers across her industry. 

“‘We are essential workers, we may not be visible, but we work hard to make sure our communities are fed and nourished,” said Dominguez, who spoke through a translator. Last April, she penned a widely read guest essay for the New York Times that described the often hazardous conditions that she and her colleagues, who were deemed essential workers by the former Trump administration, still toil.  

Those House and Senate bills would provide, among other things, guaranteed paid sick leave for part-time and full-time employees at the state’s more than 2,300 food processing and meatpacking plants; provide workplace safety training, and timely access to medical care in the event of a workplace injury, according memos supporting the legislation.

The House and Senate proposals further call for the creation of workplace health and safety committees at food processing plants across the state, charged with evaluating workplace hazards and work with the employer to improve conditions.

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State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, noted during a Capitol news conference that the “past year has taught all of us how critical food processing employees are to our economy and our food system.”

Schwank, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, said she’s “been in a lot of food plants — and I know how hard the work is. It’s not an easy place to be … Many work shoulder to shoulder to get the job done. There isn’t room for social distancing.”

Rep. Gerald J. Mullery, D-Luzerne, the sponsor of the House version of the bill, said he’s had similar first-hand experience. Last April, a Cargill meat processing plant in nearby Schuylkill County, was forced to close when 164 of its 900 employees tested positive for COVID-19, the Morning Call of Allentown reported at the time.

“It should not have taken a pandemic to make us aware of how essential these workers are,” he said. “These workers, like all workers, deserve safe working conditions – and not only during a pandemic. It’s not only the right and moral thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”

Both bills have yet to be introduced, and their prime sponsors are still seeking legislative support for their respective proposals. 

The legislation has the backing of Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents tens of thousands of workers statewide. Its president, Wendell Young IV, underscored the need for the changes included in the House and Senate bills.

Since last April, more than 50,000 COVID-19 cases have been tied to the meatpacking industry, and at least 248 workers have died, USA Today reported on April 8, citing tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  And while thousands of workers have been vaccinated, the industry’s crisis “continues,” USA Today reported, noting that one worker had died as recently as March.

“There’s been a lot of talk about these folks being … literally heroes,” Young said. “Our members who work in these industries went out every day to work to make sure they could feed America. They literally put the food on the shelves and tables.”

Dominguez, whose plant temporarily shuttered last year before state-ordered safeguards were put in place, said Wednesday that she was grateful to have the support of her union. But, “sadly, this is not the case for many workers who do not have a union. For that reason it is very important to support this legislation. The same protections … that I and my fellow members have should be extended for all workers.”