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Smithfield sued to improve COVID-19 working conditions

Photo by Alxey Pnferov/iStock/Getty Images Plus. COVID-19
Lawsuit aims to require Smithfield to provide pork plant workers with PPE and paid sick leave and to avoid overcrowding.

Thousands of workers employed in the food supply chain around the country have fallen ill with COVID-19. The Rural Community Workers Alliance and a Milan, Mo., plant worker filed a complaint against Smithfield Foods in Missouri Western District Court alleging that the company is putting employees' lives at risk by failing to comply with Centers for Disease Control & Prevention safety guidelines concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, hundreds of employees of Smithfield’s plant in South Dakota contracted COVID-19, and Smithfield was forced to close that plant after it became the country’s leading hot spot. At least two of those employees have died. Also, workers at a Smithfield plant in Cudahy, Wis., recently raised concerns after that plant experienced more than two dozen confirmed cases. Smithfield continues to operate its plant in Milan “in a manner that contributes to the spread of the disease,” the court document noted.

Specifically, the lawsuit said in direct contravention of CDC guidelines, Smithfield's Milan plant: (1) provides insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), (2) forces workers to work shoulder to shoulder and schedules their worktime and breaks in a manner that forces workers to be crowded into cramped hallways and restrooms, (3) refuses to provide workers with sufficient opportunities or time to wash their hands, (4) discourages workers from taking sick leave when they are ill and even establishes bonus payments that encourage workers to come into work sick and (5) has failed to implement a plan for testing and contact-tracing workers who may have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.

This suit does not seek money damages but, rather, an injunction to force Smithfield to change its practices such that if it continues to operate, it must comply with, at a bare minimum, 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.

In a press call on April 23, the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union estimated that 10 meat packing workers and three food processing workers have died from COVID-19. In addition, at least 5,000 meat packing workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly affected by the virus. The estimates of those workers directly affected includes individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results or have been hospitalized and/or are symptomatic.

In total, UFCW identified 13 plants that have closed at some point in the past two months and estimates that these closures have affected more than 24,500 workers and resulted in a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity and a 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.

During the conference call, the threat to America’s meat packing workforce was highlighted by five workers from the meat packing industry who discussed the significant risks they and their co-workers are facing every day in some of the nation’s largest meat packing facilities. Among the specific risks highlighted by these workers was the challenge posed by a lack of PPE as well as increased line speeds that make social distancing all but impossible.

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