As the COVID-19 pandemic bore down on the state and nation early last year, the Minnesota Legislature took a smart, practical step. To aid front-line workers who had to stay on the job, lawmakers enacted a change that makes it easier for some to claim workers' compensation benefits to cover lost wages or medical care if they become infected.
But this well-intended action didn't include a high-risk workforce — the state's meatpacking industry employees. Over the past year, the error of this omission and the need for its remedy have become increasingly clear.
Federal health officials have cited meatpacking plants' potential for "rapid transmission" of the virus. Thousands of workers have been sickened and 250 have died after "at least 41 major outbreaks in meatpacking facilities in 20 states," according to a recently launched U.S. House investigation.
Despite this reality, Minnesota meatpacking employees have been passed over for workers' compensation benefits at a shocking rate, according to Feb. 22 Star Tribune story. Of the 935 claims filed due to COVID, zero have been approved, according to the newspaper's analysis of a state Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) report.
Not surprisingly, workers with the new preferred status had more success — 56.6% of claims were OK'd. This group includes medical providers, police, firefighters, corrections officers and child care workers. If they get sick, it's presumed they got COVID at work instead of the employee having to prove exposure happened there. Through the workers' compensation system, employees who are injured or sickened at work can seek compensation from an employer or employer's insurer.
There's further reason for legislators and regulators to scrutinize meat industry employees' poor workers' compensation outcomes. A suspicious data spike raises questions about reporting lags or gaps by the industry. From April to June, there were a total of 46 meat processing workers' comp claims filed with DLI. But after the agency communicated concerns about this to the industry last summer, July's total rose to 878.
Claims from these firms soon fell to a trickle again, with only 11 more reported through January 2021. For context, Minnesota saw its largest surge in COVID infections in late fall. COVID-related workers' comp claims across all occupations also soared to their highest levels in November and December, according to the DLI report.
"The numbers just don't make sense. ... 94% of all meatpacking claims are reported in one month, and 6% in the other eight months, when other industries see a steady number of COVID claims, and then a huge surge in late 2020," said John Malone, an attorney specializing in workers' compensation. "Something is off. And, it still doesn't answer why all were denied."
In a statement, Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for JBS USA, a meatpacker with operations in Minnesota, said the company complied with DLI's request for claims data last summer but added that the firm's "understanding" is that other companies did not.
Bruett also noted that not all workers' compensation claims have been resolved in Minnesota, suggesting some could still be approved. But Bruett curiously seemed to downplay the 935 denied claims' validity. "The vast majority of the claims cited in the Feb. 22 article were filed by the company to comply with a request" from DLI, he said. "The request asked that we file a claim on behalf of any employee who received notice of a positive COVID-19 test or claimed to have tested positive. These claims filed by the company do not represent official workers' compensation claims."
Asked for comment, DLI officials said Wednesday that "there is no such thing as an 'unofficial claim.' "
There's a bill teed up in the Legislature to strengthen protections for meat and poultry workers. It doesn't directly remedy the COVID workers' compensation issue, so an additional measure is needed. But the debate over the proposed safeguards is timely and will put a commendable spotlight on a workforce that kept grocery shelves stocked during the pandemic.