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Meat processing workers at Smithfield Foods in Milan, Missouri, were raising concerns about their working environment even before nearly 600 employees of a Smithfield plant in South Dakota contracted COVID-19.

Smithfield shut down its South Dakota plant indefinitely Sunday, and some workers in Milan fear it’s only a matter of time before the coronavirus overwhelms their community, too.

Smithfield also closed its Martin City, Missouri, and Cudahy, Wisconsin facilities Wednesday because the plants rely on raw materials from the Sioux City, South Dakota plant, according to a news release.

Seventy employees signed a letter to management March 29 alleging unsafe working conditions in the Milan plant and asking for increased measures to prevent coronavirus spread, according to Axel Fuentes, executive director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance.

Smithfield is taking steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities. Workers say the company isn’t going far enough.

Fuentes works closely with employees at the Milan plant, a large number of whom are immigrants, to fight for better working conditions. He said there have always been issues with the Smithfield facility but the pandemic has made the problems more pressing.

“If you were to do a poll of how many workers want to continue working during the pandemic and how many don’t, the majority would say, ‘No,’” Fuentes said. “They’re working because they need their job and if they don’t work, they’ll be fired. I’ve had workers say to me, ‘I’d prefer to lose 5, 6, 700 dollars, I don’t care how much. My life is more important.’ But they aren’t given the choice.”

Fuentes said the letter describes issues including a lack of distance between workers; the high speed of the line; a lack of masks and other personal protection equipment; workers assigned negative “points” for missing work because of coronavirus symptoms; and unavoidable contact between employees in the hallways.

Two line workers at the Milan plant, whom the Missourian is not identifying because of their concerns for job security, confirmed the conditions described by Fuentes.

Employees are not provided with masks or other face coverings, the workers said. The production line moves so fast that in the case of a cough or sneeze, there isn’t time to step away or clean one’s face.

“It scares me, the hundreds of people we see along the entrance, in the hallways, in the cafeteria at lunch, in the bathrooms, in the working area where we’re all working together,” the employee said.

The Department of Homeland Security declared employees of food production facilities “critical infrastructure workers” on March 19, exempting them from stay-at-home orders.

After pressure from South Dakota’s governor and the mayor of Sioux Falls, Smithfield announced Sunday that its Sioux Falls plant was being closed indefinitely after nearly 300 employees tested positive for coronavirus.

The number of positive coronavirus cases among Smithfield employees in South Dakota had increased to 598 as of Thursday, according to the Rapid City Journal. 

“Numerous plants across the country have COVID-19 positive employees,” Smithfield president and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a news release announcing the closure. “We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic. We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever.”

Smithfield Foods is a publicly traded company owned by WH Group Limited in Hong Kong.

As of 2016, Smithfield employed about 3,000 people in its northern Missouri facilities in Milan and Princeton, according to a report produced by The National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and Rhodium Group.

Smithfield declined to answer specific questions from the Missourian, including whether employees were provided with masks and details about social distancing and common areas. A Smithfield spokesperson referred the Missourian to a web page detailing the company’s COVID-19 response.

In a news conference Thursday, Gov. Parson said he was unaware of reports of meat processing workers not being provided masks. 

"I would definitely be encouraging the employers to make sure they have that availability, if it's there, to make sure their employees can have (masks)," Parson said. "If that's not happening, I would be welcome for somebody to kind of share that with me so I know what the company is and everything."

Fuentes said workers told him the company has addressed some of the requests made by employees in the letter.

Smithfield installed hand sanitizing stations and plastic barriers on cafeteria tables and between workers on the production line. The company also separated cafeteria tables and expanded the size of the eating area, workers said.

One employee said the plastic barriers between workers on the line aren’t sufficient, however, and if a person coughs, the germs could still travel down the line or to the person on the opposite side.

The plant is also taking employees’ temperatures at the entrance and offering two weeks’ paid leave to those who are quarantined, according to the company’s website.

Additionally, Smithfield said it is limiting visitors to its plants nationwide and offering a $500 “responsibility bonus” to hourly employees.

Initially, only workers who had perfect attendance for the month of April would receive the bonus, Fuentes said, saying the bonus incentivized employees to come to work even if they were sick.

Smithfield said in a Tuesday news release that a bonus will be provided to workers who miss work due to coronavirus exposure or diagnosis.

Sullivan County, where the Milan plant is located, had reported no cases of coronavirus as of Wednesday. Tony Keene, CEO of Sullivan County Memorial Hospital, said Tuesday around 20 people had been tested for the coronavirus and that all of the tests came back negative.

The two Smithfield employees said they knew of workers who came to work with symptoms including chills and a cough, and they fear Smithfield’s safety measures won’t be enough to protect them.

The letter to management requests that Smithfield enforce quarantine by temporarily closing the plant. In the case the plant stays open, the employees asked for work to be voluntary instead of mandatory, for increased pay and benefits, elimination of negative points for employees who miss work for health reasons, a distance of 6 feet between people on the production line, reduction of the speed of the line and the provision of masks and other personal protection equipment to employees.

“They’re waiting (to close) until there is a sick person in the plant or a death,” said one employee of the Milan facility. “Every single one of us workers is valuable. Our lives have value.”

Milan School District called off in-person classes March 17. With a large number of Milan residents still working at the plant full time, employees are having to arrange alternative child care.

One employee said the biggest worry is contracting the virus at work and bringing it home to his kids.

“If someone who works in the plant is contaminated and has to take their children to another house — maybe someone is watching them in quarantine — the kids are also going to carry the virus,” Fuentes said.

Despite some workers’ concerns, the county says it is prepared to handle coronavirus if it arrives in Milan.

Sullivan County Memorial Hospital is a 25-bed critical access hospital. Hospital CEO Andy Keene said the hospital has an adequate supply of personal protective equipment and they have established a separate triage facility for the intake of potential coronavirus patients.

The hospital has no intensive care unit or ventilators, however, according to Keene. If a patient needs intensive care, that person would have to be taken 33 miles to Kirksville or 125 miles to Columbia for care, Keene said. He added that the hospital has the appropriate equipment to provide safe transportation.

“We are under the guidelines of (the) DHSS stay-at-home order, and we are following those guidelines, and as far as we know, all of the businesses are taking their precautionary measures,” Sullivan County Health Department administrator Deborah Taylor said.