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Article: Smithfield served with coronavirus lawsuit

30 April 2020

This is an article taken from our IEG Policy platform dated 270420.

Smithfield Foods has been hit with a lawsuit alleging it is failing to protect workers at a pork processing plant in Missouri from the risks of COVID-19.

Filed by the Rural Community Workers Alliance and a plant worker identified as Jane Doe, the lawsuit says Smithfield ignored the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) "abundantly clear guidance" to safeguard workers and continues to operate the Milan, Missouri plant in a "manner that contributes to the spread of the disease."

The suit alleges Smithfield failed to provide employees with adequate personal protective equipment, forced them to work shoulder to shoulder, refused to provide them with adequate break opportunities or time to wash their hands, discouraged them from taking sick leave, and failed to implement a plan for testing and contact-testing.

The 22-page complaint criticizes Smithfield for not taking responsibility for the spread of COVID-19 at several of its facilities, notably a South Dakota plant that has emerged as a coronavirus hot spot. More than 780 workers at the now-shuttered Sioux Falls plant have tested positive for the virus and two workers have died. Smithfield is not the only meat processor struggling with the spread of COVID-19 - Tyson and JBS have also been forced to close plants and all told more than a dozen facilities have been shuttered because of the pandemic.

Labor unions, worker advocates and Democrats in Congress have pressured food companies and USDA to take additional steps to protect workers - last week the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said more than 5,000 meatpacking and food processing workers have been sickened or exposed to COVID-19.

The complaint echoes those concerns that the industry has not taken its role to protect its workers seriously and has put profits ahead of public health.

"Smithfield is so unwilling to acknowledge its responsibilities to its workers and the communities where it operates that it recently blamed 'certain cultures' for the spread of the disease in its South Dakota plant, rather than its failure to provide personal protective equipment, failure to allow for hand washing and social distancing, and the policies its maintains in plants around the country to incentivize sick workers to continue coming to work," according to the lawsuit.

Sick workers have "gone on to infect family members and community members and their illnesses have strained our healthcare infrastructure," the complaint says. "Many workers and their family members have died as a consequence of infections that have spread at workplaces in our nation's food supply chain. Workers employed by Smithfield are all too familiar with this phenomenon."

Filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Missouri, the lawsuit says the Jane Doe plaintiff is participating in the action "under a pseudonym because her years of experience working for Smithfield suggest to her that Smithfield is likely to retaliate against her speaking out against the company." Doe works on the "cut floor" side-by-side with several other workers to cut and process pig meat for up to 11 hours a day, according to the complaint, and she has become "more fearful and concerned than ever by the workplace conditions" at the plant.

At least eight workers at the plant have had to stay home after displaying COVID-19 symptoms, according to Doe, who says she is "scared of the potential consequences" from filing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, but instead seeks an injunction to force Smithfield "at a bare minimum" to comply with CDC guidance, the orders of state public health officials, and "additional protective measures that public and occupational health experts deem necessary based on the particular structure and operation of the Milan plant."

Smithfield said the claims are unfounded and the company will be "aggressively defending" itself in court.

Language Barriers

The lawsuit came in the wake of a report from the CDC outlining recommendations for when Smithfield can reopen its Sioux Falls pork processing plant. A CDC team toured the plant on April 16 and 17 and released its report on April 23 along with South Dakota state officials.

The report noted that Smithfield had already taken some mitigation measures, including the installation of plexiglass barriers in locations where social distancing was not possible, but CDC investigators called for a more uniform effort across the plant. It said Smithfield is in the process of implementing other recommended measures, such as providing face masks and shields, employee temperature screening, and wellness checks. The CDC also called for an array of additional actions, including staggering shifts, increased physical spacing, and more flexibility in break times, and highlighted the need for much better communication between the company and its workers.

Poor communication contributed to the outbreak at the plant, the CDC concluded, explaining that workers at the plant speak some 40 different languages but when an employee was found to have a fever or symptoms consistent with COVID-19, they were given information in English and told to go home. CDC also struggled to assess Smithfield's response because of the language barrier and was unable to identify "important demographic information" about the workforce at the plant.

Smithfield said it will review the CDC recommendations - which are not binding - and work with state officials before reopening the plant.

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