Sky Chadde is the Midwest Center’s Gannett Agricultural Data Fellow. He can be reached at sky.chadde@investigatemidwest.org. This story is embargoed for republication until May 11.

As more and more Smithfield workers in South Dakota fell ill with COVID-19, the company’s workers at a Missouri plant contended with policies that made social distancing almost impossible, according to an affidavit from a plant worker filed in a lawsuit last week.

Workers stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the line, and the speed of the line was increased, meaning workers interacted with each other more frequently, the worker said. The length of daily shifts was also increased, and break times were not staggered so workers often crowded into break rooms, according to the affidavit.

“I believe that many workers are afraid of the company, which leads them to come to work even when they feel ill,” said the worker, who is remaining anonymous over fears of losing the job. “Workers are too worried about losing their jobs to raise concerns about Smithfield’s COVID-19 practices.”

The lawsuit, which was filed Thursday, includes an affidavit from a doctor who has studied workplace injuries.

The “risk of COVID-19 transmission will increase if workers … do not have the time or space to distance from each other,” according to the affidavit from Robert Harrison, who leads a program monitoring workplace safety at the California Department of Public Health.

Smithfield said the lawsuit should be dismissed because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was already investigating a complaint related to the Milan, Missouri, plant.

In a statement on its website, Smithfield said it was doing “everything we can” to protect its workers, but it said social distancing was difficult to implement.

“There are inescapable realities about our industry,” the statement reads. “Meat processing facilities, which are characterized by labor intensive assembly line style production, are not designed for social distancing.”

Smithfield also said it had distributed masks to employees “less than a week” after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines on April 3 that people should wear masks in places where the disease could easily spread.

On April 16, the Columbia Missourian reported that employees still did not have masks. The worker, who signed the affidavit on April 22, said masks were only provided in the past week.

Smithfield owns the plant that has had the largest outbreak of COVID-19 cases. According to the Argus Leader, 801 plant workers have tested positive, and so have 206 people who have come into contact with the workers. The plant has been closed since April 12.

Last week, the CDC sent Smithfield a report about how it could have stopped the spread of the disease, including guidelines on social distancing, according to the Argus Leader.

On the production line, workers should be staggered and not directly across from each other. The company should place signs marking six feet to encourage social distancing. And there should be more flexibility with break times so workers aren’t crowded, the Argus Leader reported.

CDC and OSHA also issued guidelines Sunday for meatpacking companies to help maintain the spread of the disease. The guidelines, which aren’t enforceable, came days after increased attention on meatpacking workers falling sick, including a USA Today and Midwest Center investigation detailing how the situation could get much worse.

According to the guidelines, employers should not allow line workers to face each other, should add more clock-in areas and stagger arrival and departure times “if feasible.”

As of Monday, at least 4,135 meatpacking workers had tested positive for the virus, and at least 18 have died, according to Midwest Center tracking. At least 75 plants in 25 states have had workers become infected.

Sky Chadde is the Midwest Center’s Gannett Agricultural Data Fellow. He can be reached at sky.chadde@investigatemidwest.org.

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