Workers at a pork processing plant in Milan, Missouri seeking safer working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic sued agribusiness giant Smithfield Foods yesterday in federal court, bringing further bad publicity to a company whose South Dakota plant recently became the epicenter of the worst coronavirus cluster in the country.
Last week, a Smithfield spokesperson laid the blame for the outbreak at its Sioux Falls plant, where more than 700 workers tested positive for COVID-19 and two died, on the workers themselves, telling Buzzfeed, “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family.” Which is a case study in How To PR Like a Pro!
But according to workers in the Missouri plant, the issue is Smithfield’s refusal to take basic protective measures, like slowing down the line so workers can sneeze into a tissue or cough into their sleeves while packaging meat for America’s supermarkets.
If Smithfield slowed the line, workers, including RCWA members, could be spaced farther apart and have time to take effective preventive measures, like wiping spittle from their mouths and covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze. However, since the closure of other Smithfield plants due to pandemic flare ups, Smithfield has only increased the line speed at the Milan Plant, placing more pressure on its workers at the Milan Plant and subjecting them to greater risk of disease. Smithfield also implements punitive measures to ensure its preferred line speed is maintained, including that missing even one piece of meat to clean one’s face could result in punitive employment action.
According to the suit, filed by the Rural Community Workers Alliance and an anonymous plaintiff, who fears retaliation by her managers if her identity were known, Smithfield “packs many workers together in cramped spaces along processing lines,” with so little social distancing that they risk being cut by each other’s butchering knives. The company provides no tissues for coughs or sneezes, and only began offering surgical masks to workers on April 15. But only surgical masks, and only one per week.
The company did install Plexiglass dividers between working stations and in the cafeteria. But as they come down from the ceiling and/or bisect the tables lengthwise, they provide little protection for short people or workers eating lunch side by side, since the company refused to stagger break times to allow for social distancing during meals.
But lest Smithfield be accused of not caring about its employees, in March as the rest of country was entering lockdown, the company offered a $500 “Responsibility Bonus” for “all of its workers, but with an important catch: the bonus would not be available to any worker who misses a shift for any reason between April 1 and May 1.”
#ThankaFoodWorker! The suit alleges that $500 is a strong incentive for employees at the non-union plant to come to work sick, and, although Smithfield later claimed that workers who missed shifts due to illness would not lose eligibility, workers report being told the opposite by their managers on the floor.
Under a novel theory of public nuisance law, plaintiffs seek an injunction ordering Smithfield to provide PPE, reconfigure the line to allow for social distancing, provide adequate sanitization stations and tissues for workers to wipe their noses, pay for shifts missed due to illness, implement a contact tracing plan, and allow for inspection of the plant by health and safety experts. They’re not seeking any money damages. But if these food service employees are so essential to the nation’s food supply that they have to show up for work during a pandemic, they’re asking for the company to follow the CDC guidelines to to protect their health and the health of their small, rural community. At the very least, Smithfield could provide its employees with a box of tissues and two seconds to turn their heads away instead of sneezing on America’s dinner.
RURAL COMMUNITY WORKERS ALLIANCE and JANE DOE v. SMITHFIELD FOODS, INC. AND SMITHFIELD FRESH MEATS CORP. [No. 5:20-cv-06063, Complaint (W. D. Mo. April 23, 2020)]
Elizabeth Dye (@5DollarFeminist) lives in Baltimore where she writes about law and politics.
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