by Cirien Saadeh
For many nurses, nursing home caregivers, daycare workers, education support professionals, meatpacking workers, and others, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant going to work amid chaos and fear.
“People didn’t want to go to work, but they did out of necessity,” said Camilla, a Latina elder with multiple family members working in a meatpacking plant in Worthington, Minnesota. Camilla, who worked in the plant in the 1990s, asked to use a pseudonym because she doesn’t want her husband or other family members to be put in a tense situation at work and in the community. The JBS Pork Plant, where her husband works, is Worthington’s largest employer.
“My husband never stopped working. He’s been tested but never tested positive, thank God. It was very traumatic in the beginning, and even now, the lingering stress and fear of folks not being vaccinated is a burden.”
According to meatpacking plant workers, even when the factory was closed down for a week to restructure the plant better to reduce COVID-19 risk, workers were expected to go in and help with that reorganization.
“The workers kept working … And people were still expected to do the work, even if there were less people on the line. They were still expected to [process] 1,000 hogs an hour because money is the bottom-line,” Camilla told Prism.
For many workers and their families, the results of constant exposure risks have been disastrous. The JBS Pork Plant in Worthington has been the site of major outbreaks. In spring 2020, half of the plant’s 2,000 workers were sick with COVID-19, and two had died. Across the country, meatpacking plants have routinely become virus hotspots, and along with others, the Worthington plant was the subject of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation.
“It’s very personal. My sister, who worked in the plant, died of COVID. My niece was exposed and got COVID, and she has lupus,” said Camilla. “A lot of people are still stressed out in a place that they’re not sure is safe.”
Because of the challenges faced by front-line workers across the state, the Minnesota State Legislature passed legislation that aimed to distribute $250 million to those workers. The legislation was passed, and its funding was designated during the first 2021 special session. Legislators set a Sept. 6 deadline for a working group to finalize a plan establishing which workers qualify for the fund and how the money would be distributed. The working group’s proposal will need to go back to the Minnesota State Legislature for a final vote in a second special session.
As it has been commonly known, the Hero Pay legislation follows on the heels of a workers’ compensation adjustment earlier in the legislative session. Workers’ compensation is an insurance system for those injured or sick while working that ensures they continue to get paid if they cannot work. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Minnesota State Legislature passed a law that ensured that workers in health care or emergency services, alongside a few other fields, would be presumed to have gotten sick on the job, as it would have been otherwise hard to prove where an individual became ill.
“That was a big fight against some employer groups and the insurance industry,” said Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL), who said that other front-line workers like paraeducators and meatpackers were omitted.
During the pandemic, among the most vulnerable front-line workers have been those who work for hourly pay. An Education Support Professional (ESP), for example, does not have the safety of a salary to protect their income as schools open and close.
“There was just such anxiety about going to work every day. Working short-handed in the best of circumstances in special education is a challenge. Then, of course, you had COVID in there, and just wanting to make sure you’re trying to be safe and keep the students safe because it’s of course just not about you,” said Jen Gajeski, a Forest Lake paraeducator who provides instructional support to specific students. Gajeski says that the work started as virtual work, but paraeducators would still be on-campus when physical school was in session.
Democratic-Farmer-Leader (DFL) working group members have sought to adopt a more expansive definition of “front-line workers,” while GOP working group members have pushed to prioritize nurses and nursing home workers and give other front-line workers lower priority. Legislators could not agree by their self-imposed deadline, and discussions are expected to continue, though no additional working group meetings have been scheduled.
Winkler noted that although the deadline has passed, he expects that a deal on the definition of “front-line worker” in the legislation and a funding distribution plan will still be made this week. That deal depends on an agreement by newly-elected DFL and GOP leaders in the Minnesota House and Senate. It also depends on an agreement between Gov. Tim Walz (DFL) and GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate. There are also other COVID-19 related politics at play in the debate over the legislation: According to Winkler, The DFL is also asking Senate GOP leaders to commit not to act on their threatened firing of the Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and to stop obstructing vaccine mandates. Senator Karin Housley (GOP), another working group leader, could not be reached for comment.
Despite the hope that a deal might be made soon, legislatively and politically, workers are still working and still waiting for state legislators’ support.
“Legislators need to see what COVID did to families and re-evaluate the costs,” said Camilla. “I’m not sure why there isn’t a sense of that. It’s always, ‘how we are going to give money to so many people.’ When people were testifying, I knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere. They’re prioritizing; they’re pitting people against each other. Everything has to get politicized.”
This is an ongoing story.
Cirien Saadeh, PhD, is an Arab-American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism can be a tool that can be used to build power in historically marginalized communities.
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