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Minnesota committee looks to protect food processing workers

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently established the Governor’s Committee on the Safety, Health and Wellbeing of Agricultural and Food Processing Workers, meant to improve systems, resources and communications for agricultural workers.

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Minnesota has started a committee focused on protecting ag and food processing employees. USDA photo by Preston Keres, taken April 28, 2017.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light that agricultural and food processing workers were vulnerable to emergencies and shifts in the industry.

To help oversee safeguards for those workers, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently signed an executive order to establish the Governor’s Committee on the Safety, Health and Wellbeing of Agricultural and Food Processing Workers.

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Sunday, March 28, 2021, delivered his State of the State address from his former social studies classroom at Mankato West High School.

“Agriculture and food processing are foundational to Minnesota’s economy, and yet, workers in these industries face immense challenges, particularly regarding workplace safety, employment protections, and access to safe housing, health care and transportation,” Walz said. “We all share responsibility for addressing these challenges, and I am grateful to the leaders from across the state who stepped up to serve on this committee.”

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said that workers in the ag and food processing industry were "essential to keeping our state and nation’s food supply strong," but those workers weren't taken care of enough by state leaders.

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Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan speaks during a Friday, March 26, 2021, news conference after a tour of the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Worthington Event Center. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

“The safety, health and well-being of workers is vital not only to the workers themselves, but also to their families and communities, and to Minnesota’s agricultural production and processing industries," Flanagan said.

The Committee will be co-chaired by Hamse Warfa, deputy commissioner for workforce development at the Department of Employment and Economic Development, and Andrea Vaubel, deputy commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“This committee will remove barriers between agencies and bring community voices to the table. Our goal will be to ensure that the safety and well-being of our agricultural and food processing workers remains a top priority for Minnesota," Warfa said.

Vaubel called Walz a "strong advocate for Minnesota agriculture" and said that creating the committee was an "important step toward ensuring the safety and well-being" of ag workers.

The committee's objectives begin with the coordination of resources and outreach for the 2021 growing, harvesting and processing season.

Goals also include designing a strategy to deploy resources (focusing on housing and transportation) to protect and promote the safety and well-being of industry workers, develop a system for effective communication between state agencies and other relevant organizations, and support and assist the Minnesota Department of Health, local public health departments and community organizations with the coordination of the COVID-19 response.

Committee members include:

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  • Rena Wong, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663

  • Jennifer Christensen, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189

  • Colin Laffey, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services

  • Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, Unidos MN

  • Rodolfo Gutierrez, HACER

  • Susan Bishop, Minnesota Department of Health

  • Nicole Blissenbach, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry

  • Kevin Paap, Minnesota Farm Bureau

  • Tamara Nelsen, Minnesota AgriGrowth Council

  • Gary Wertish, Minnesota Farmers Union

  • Kiza Olson, Meeker-McLeod-Sibley Community Health Services

  • Sarah Berry, Southwest/West Central Community Health Board

  • Kristi Halvarson, Community Health Service Inc.

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