Two workers walk toward the Tyson Foods processing plant in Dakota City, Nebraska.

Though one out of every four confirmed COVID-19 cases in our state is tied to meatpacking plants, local, state and federal officials charged with ensuring the safety of workers have decided against exercising any regulatory or enforcement powers to make conditions safer. The number of positive cases continues to rise dramatically. 

We The People must hold these companies, and the public officials who have failed to regulate them, accountable.

What You Need to Know

Thousands of Nebraskan meatpacking plant workers have tested positive for COVID-19, causing some Nebraska counties to lead the nation in infection rates. As of May 18, eight deaths had been tied to Nebraska meatpacking plants. During the past few weeks, the number of meatpacking plant workers infected by COVID-19 has increased by at least 160%. 

Predictably, Gov. Ricketts' strategy of directing health officials to make unenforceable recommendations to plant officials has failed to produce the safe work environment that's required by the law.  For example, we remain unaware of a single Nebraska plant spacing workers six feet apart on the processing floor even though this is the most fundamental method of preventing the spread of this disease, recommended universally by health officials and incorporated into public health directives signed by executive officials all over the world.

President Trump and Gov. Ricketts have both said packing plants are essential infrastructure and have thereby recognized the workers as essential. Like other essential workers, including frontline health workers, meatpacking plant workers need essential protections. Yet, despite rising rates of infection, Nebraska’s meatpacking plants have not fully implemented the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Instead of requiring these companies to step up safety measures, Gov. Ricketts has tried to shift blame to workers' "communities" and their culture. He has surrendered regulatory authority to OSHA, knowing the agency does not intend to exercise it. He has even encouraged local health departments to let plant owners decide whether they should report how many cases are associated with specific plants.

Companies' failures to protect workers are increasing existing health disparities. Essential workers in our state's meatpacking plants are disproportionately Nebraskans of color and immigrants. We are fighting for these workers to continue our tradition of promoting racial justice and equal protection of the law.

What the ACLU is Doing

We reject the false choice of either closing the plants altogether or risking the health and safety of workers. Plants can continue to operate, and workers can simultaneously be protected, but only if industry executives and plant leadership are required to follow, at a minimum, standards established by the CDC and OSHA. All we ask is that Gov. Ricketts direct his Department of Labor to fulfill their duty to enforce laws passed by the people to provide employees safe workplaces.

  • We joined community partners in sending a joint letter to Gov. Ricketts, calling for key protections. 
  • We are calling for local health department directors and Nebraska Department of Labor Commissioner John Albin to mandate increased protections for meatpacking plant workers - including a minimum of six feet distance on the processing floor and notification of health authorities and coworkers of any positive tests.
  • We are supporting solidarity drive-in vigils across the state by funding signage.
  • With the COVID Tracking Project, we filed an open records request to seek statewide data on COVID-19 cases and deaths disaggregated by race and ethnicity. This data would show where resources are needed the most.

What You Can Do

Thank you for defending the rights of our friends, family and neighbors who are working at these plants. We the People means all of us.

  • Sign our petition to send a clear message that essential workers deserve essential protections. More than 1,300 Nebraskans have added their names.  
  • Tell Gov. Ricketts to stop blaming workers and to start standing up to companies by mandating increased protections. Contact information is available online.
  • Keep this in the news and keep the pressure up. Write into your local newspaper to share what you think about the current situation and what should be done. We've put together helpful tips for writing a letter to the editor.

In the News