Two new bills passed by the General Assembly last month hurt our environment and workers. One of them cuts clean transportation spending, and the other aids the corporate meat industry while ignoring threats to workers’ health.
The legislative majority’s latest move again takes us in the wrong direction on climate change. House Bill 77 includes cuts to the state Department of Transportation’s Integrated Mobility Division (IMD), which covers transit, cycling, and pedestrian projects. The IMD cuts ignore the fact our transportation sector is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and that boosting public transit and bike and pedestrian infrastructure is one of the best ways to tackle climate and improve everyone’s health. This continues a decades-long pattern of legislative attacks on all efforts to reduce dependence on highways and air travel — the most pollution-intensive modes of transport. It won’t stop until pro-polluter leadership loses its hold on legislative power in Raleigh.
Leadership also passed a new public subsidy for the meat processing industry while failing to address growing public health hazards to workers.
Across North Carolina and nationwide, poultry and pork processing plants are hotbeds for COVID-19 spread. The plants’ typical conditions of rapid assembly line movement, workers’ close proximity to each other, and infrequent sanitary breaks have long been sources of serious health and safety concerns. Those same conditions make spreading a highly infectious respiratory virus nearly impossible to control. Many of these plants are major local employers, drawing workers from several nearby counties — workers who then return to their families and communities, spreading the virus they picked up at the plant.
Despite knowing this, the state House declined to approve labor and public health protection requirements for plants receiving the subsidy. Had it passed, plants would have had to provide employees with protections including social distancing, face masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, and a 15-minute break every two hours. Amendment (PDF) sponsor Rep. Rachel Hunt (D-Mecklenburg) pointed out that as of the vote on June 24, there had been at least 2,702 known COVID-19 cases among our state’s meat processing workers. The amendment failed by a 57-57 tie vote.
The grants for meat processors was included in House Bill 1201, which the House passed but which got stopped up in the Senate Rules Committee. But the unamended language from that bill was then added to a broader COVID relief bill approved late the same night and subsequently signed by Gov. Roy Cooper. This bill, House Bill 1023, directs up to $10 million out of North Carolina’s federal coronavirus relief funding toward expansion of eligible meat processing facilities or for fixtures or equipment “that will expand animal through-put, processing capacity, the amount or type of products produced, or processing speed.” As a result, these plants can take our taxpayer dollars to add or improve equipment that will expand production, speed up the lines, or even reduce their need for workers, without having to spend a dime to protect workers’ health — and therefore our health.