Legislation providing $10 million in federal CARES Act funding to meat-processing facilities was placed into a COVID-19-focused bill during the final push of the latest 2020 General Assembly session.
House Bill 1023 cleared the legislature on June 25 and was sent to Gov. Roy Cooper, who has 10 days to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
The state House passed House Bill 1201 by a 116-2 vote on June 24. That bill was co-sponsored by GOP Reps. Jeffery Elmore of Wilkes County and Julia Howard of Davie County.
The bipartisan bill included $17.7 million to help the plants add production capacity and equipment, and market their products.
The overwhelming support, however, came after an amendment failed 57-57 that would have required facilities receiving grant funds to provide employees with face masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and a 15-minute break every two hours for hand cleaning. A bill or amendment vote that ends in a tie is considered as failing.
With the failure of the amendment, neither HB1201 nor HB1023 addresses plant- and worker-safety conditions after several outbreaks at meat-processing facilities in the state, including at least 570 Tyson Foods workers testing positive at the company’s Wilkesboro facilities.
Another amendment was approved for HB1201 that required grant applicants to submit a plan for protecting employees from COVID-19.
However, the Senate did not take up H1201 in committee.
Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations committee inserted on June 23 much of the language in HB1201 into HB1023 in a gut-and-replace strategy.
The bill reduced the grant funding from $17.7 million to $10 million. It did not include the requirement about submitting a plan for protecting employees from COVID-19.
HB1023 cleared the House by a 114-0 vote at 3:26 a.m. Friday — one of the last bills acted upon before the latest phase of the session was adjourned a few minutes later.
The impetus behind the meat-processing grant legislation is the COVID-19 pandemic, which “has resulted in serious and substantial impacts on the food supply chain,” in particular on small- to medium-sized livestock producers.
The funding assistance, which initially was up to $25 million, is “necessary in order to reduce disruptions in the supply chain for fresh meat, and to help small producers get their product to market.”
HB1023 provides funding “for expansion of an existing eligible facility and for fixtures or equipment at an existing eligible facility that will expand animal throughput, processing capacity, the amount or type of products produced, or processing speed.”
It also provides workforce development funding for educational and workforce training provided either by the facility or by an institution of higher education. There’s also a portion available to a nonprofit entity or institution of higher education to complete feasibility or siting studies for a new eligible meat processing facility.”
One principal goal is getting new equipment in place to make plants more efficient, and so to perhaps need fewer workers. Large producers such as Tyson would not be eligible for the grants.
Rep. Rachel Hunt, D-Mecklenburg, sponsor of the failed HB1201 amendment, said there had been at least 2,702 COVID-19 cases among meat-processing workers across the state as of June 24.
The failed amendment also would have required employers to adhere to social distancing requirements, notify employees of positive COVID-19 cases at the workplace and provide a deep cleaning after an outbreak.
Employees who tested positive for COVID-19 would have been paid for up to 80 hours of wages if they had to self-isolate for themselves or a family member infected with the virus.
Elmore urged voting down the amendment, saying that the burden of meeting the employee-protection requirements would be too much for small, family-owned meat-processing plants to absorb.
“I don’t really think this amendment would help this small-business entity with what they are trying to accomplish,” Elmore said.
“Plus, it would discourage them from even applying for the grant because they would be basically using the money for some of the things mentioned in her amendment, versus the equipment and things that we’re trying to solve the backup to help the small farmers.”
Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, said that while the amendment sponsor “is extremely well intended, (it would be) extremely counterproductive to what we’re trying to do for these small entities.”