SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — On a 7-1 vote, the South Dakota Senate Commerce and Energy Committee sent SB 145, ‘An Act to provide protection and workplace safety for meat and poultry processing workers’ to the 41st day of the session, essentially killing the legislation.
Those who supported the bill described it as a needed change that would offer increased protection and safety measures for the frontline workers producing food for South Dakotans.
The bill itself was expansive, seeking to address a variety of issues such as the appointment of a new meatpacking industry rights coordinator, employee protections for those who refuse to work under hazardous conditions, reemployment assistance for workers who leave due to poor safety conditions, and measures to prevent musculoskeletal disorders common among processing workers, among other things.
Support for the bill
Some, like Thomas Krumel, a Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Economics at North Dakota State University, pointed to research that showed meatpacking workers worked in closer proximity to their fellow laborers than workers in other industries. This fact, he said contributed to initial outbreaks of COVID-19 in production plants, such as the one at Smithfield in Sioux Falls which affected over 1,300 workers, killing 4.
Krumel co-authored a working paper on this matter for the Economic Research Service of the USDA.
Others include an electrician who cares for his mother and has worked at Smithfield Foods for 15 years, and who told of an attendance policy that encouraged workers to come to work even if they were ill. He outlined two occasions where workers came to the plant, knowing they were ill, and later tested positive for COVID-19.
Much of the testimony focused around the Smithfield plant, but not all. South Dakota AFL/CIO President Kooper Caraway spoke in favor of the bill, describing it as unique in that it was both reactive and proactive; both reacting to what proponents argued were unsafe working conditions at Smithfield, and proactive in attempting to layout rules for future businesses.
“Expansion without preparation means disaster,” said Caraway, arguing that the bill would adjust laws and rules to prevent chaos and provide a blueprint for the future.
Another proponent of the bill was B.J. Motley, President of the Local 304A chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union which represents workers in the Smithfield plant. He spoke with KELOLAND News prior to his remote testimony before the committee.
Motley described what the UFCW liked about how this bill would have protected employees. “If they feel that they’re unsafe, or in a situation that’s hazardous, that they’re able to notify their supervisor and be able to leave work if they feel their life is in danger,” said Motley.
Social distancing was another thing mentioned by Motley, which would have been raised to 6 feet by the bill. Currently, Krumel’s research found that workers in meatpacking plants often work at less than arm’s length from one another.
Motley also spoke in the committee, calling the bill a common-sense solution to problems in the industry, pointing out that the Smithfield plant itself is nearly 100 years old and outdated.
Opposition to the bill
Ultimately, the bill failed along party lines, Sen. Red Dawn Foster (D-Pine Ridge), the committee’s only Democrat, the only supporter.
Opponents of the bill largely focused on the economic flaws that they saw. Lobbyists for Smithfield and the South Dakota pork industry were joined by members of the Sioux Falls and South Dakota Chambers of Commerce, as well as Amber Mulder with the S.D. Dept. of Labor and Regulation (DLR).
Mulder began opponent testimony, saying the bill is unnecessary, as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) already provides guidance to the industry on worker safety. She also pointed to the section discussing reemployment assistance, claiming that this too was already handled by the federal COVID-19 unemployment insurance program.
Mulder also added that the DLR has no experience in overseeing this level of worker safety operations, nor does it have the staff or funding that such a law would require.
Overall, Mulder also said the bill was too broad, saying that it would also include contractors and temp workers along with the full time employees, which she framed as a negative aspect of the bill.
Drew Duncan, the lobbyist for Smithfield Foods also pointed to the bill as redundant, and also questioned the fairness of the bill, as it would only apply to companies employing over 100 people. Duncan also expressed doubt about claims that meatpacking is a dangerous job, and asked why more regulation should be placed on companies amidst a workforce shortage.
David Owen with the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce told the committee the bill would ‘micro-manage’ employee relationships, and that passing it would make South Dakota look bad for needing such measures, lessening the appeal to out of state investors.
KELOLAND News caught up with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls) after the vote.
Overall, Nesiba was in fairly good spirits, despite seeing his bill tanked in a 7-1 vote. “This is a recurring process,” he said. “when I would have brought a bill like this in [my] first year, I would’ve walked out of the room being really upset and hurt, but I’ve now learned that it’s really important to listen to what people are saying and what their criticisms are — sometimes those are the most important insights to improve a bill.”
Nesiba says he brought the bill due to concern for the workers at Smithfield, who are among his constituents in his district in Sioux Falls. “Smithfield was sanctioned by OSHA, but received a pretty small fine,” he said, “and I’m continuing to hear reports of unsafe working conditions there.”
He said the purpose of the bill was to address not just COVID-19 concerns, but also injuries created from repetitive motion.
Nesiba said all the proponents of the bill were concerned with workplace health and safety, but also seemed to acknowledge some of the criticisms levied at the bill.
“There is just inherent conflict, in some ways, of interest between the workers at Smithfield and the multi-national corporation that owns Smithfield,” said Nesiba. “Where the workers are focused on being able to keep themselves safe, there is an incentive on the part of the firm to not spend excessively — on equipment or slowing the line — it costs you profits. That is part of the inherent debate.”
Nesiba also says that he did get something positive out of the hearing today.
“Since South Dakota is not an OSHA state, we don’t have a Dept. of Labor that has staffing to oversee something like [this bill],” said Nesiba. “The one good thing I heard today from Amber Mulder, who works in the Dept. of Labor, is this project [at the] SDSU extension that does some work on workplace health and safety.”
Nesiba says he plans to reach out to the SDSU extension program to further look into their work.
Asked why the bill failed, Nesiba pointed to what he sees as an overall attitude issue. “There’s just a general opposition, I think, to unions [in the capitol]. I think South Dakota has a long history of being opposed to unions. I think this is a state that often-times — in our tax system at least — really treats the rich far more favorably than the poor,” he said.
Aside from the political roadblocks, Nesiba says the state just isn’t in the habit of implementing these sorts of protections, citing Mulder’s statements about the DLR not having the resources needed to carry out these protections.
The wide array of issues addressed in the bill may have also played a role in its demise.
“Maybe I was trying to achieve too much here,” said Nesiba. “Maybe a smaller approach would be helpful.” Despite this, he does not see the bill as a waste. “I did learn from this process.”
Nesiba says the hearing was educational. “I got some good feedback in terms of what the biggest concerns were,” he said, “so if I bring this back again in the future, I know how to improve the bill.”