The Great Plains Conference and the Gateway District are among 25 organizations calling for greater coronavirus protection for workers in Nebraska meat and poultry plants.
“We have seen more than three months of slow and insufficient action by meat and poultry plants to proactively institute COVID-19 safety protections,” the letter, dated July 23, reads. “As cases continue to rise, we can't afford to navigate the next six months without clear protections.”
The letter, credited to the Heartland Worker Center, an Omaha-based workers’ rights organization, and Nebraska Appleseed, a Lincoln racial equality group, says that more than 4,700 packing plant employees have become ill, more than 200 hospitalized and at least 19 have died. It also says that 60% of the COVID-19 cases involve Hispanics, when they are just 11% of the state population.
The Rev. Cindy Karges, Gateway and Great West districts superintendent, said she was made aware of the letter by the Rev. Anne Gahn, pastor of Lexington UMC, whose city is home to two plants.
“There just needs to be more done, because people are really vulnerable,” Karges said. “They need protection for their own benefit as well as the community.”
The letter calls on the Nebraska Legislature to enforce protections including constant 6-foot distancing between workers on the processing floor; benefits, including paid sick leave; and effective screening and quarantine practices.
Andrea Paret, conference peace with justice coordinator, said she has been working with several organizations to enforce improved conditions.
“We have been trying to work with Gov. (Pete) Ricketts, because in all of the meatpacking plants and poultry plants, there has not been consistent protections,” she said.
Paret said that the meatpacking plant in Dakota County, where she lives, had only made facemasks available for workers in mid- to late April.
Workers, she said, are afraid to complain to management because they fear it will result in losing their jobs.
“It’s not against the meatpacking industry because they do a lot of good for a lot of the communities they’re in,” Paret said. “There just have been people working there for decades, and they need protections.”
She said that although conditions in some plants have improved, a 6-foot distance cannot be maintained in areas such as restrooms and locker rooms.
The Rev. Mike Evans, pastor of Gibbon Faith UMC, said the beef-packing plant there has been responsive to the need for changes.
“The local plant here has been pretty proactive in trying to do what they can for safety aspects,” said Evans, who is friends with several managers. “There’s always concern, of course, because of the close quarters they work in, but they actually brought in people to advise on different ways they can improve safety in the midst of that.”
Paret and Karges said standing up for workers is a longtime tradition of the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations.
“It’s part of our history,” Paret said. “(John) Wesley was always so concerned about working conditions. You think about social creed from 1908, it’s all about worker safety and worker protection. It’s something that’s been very close to our heart as Methodists.
“In our United Methodist heritage, we stand on the side of the weak and the vulnerable,” she added. “And that’s the workers.”
Karges added, “It really is who we are as United Methodists to be an advocate for people.”
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