The lawsuit has the unassuming name Rural Community Workers Alliance and Jane Doe v. Smithfield Foods, Inc. and Smithfield Fresh Meats Corp.
And if Jane prevails it will slap the smug arrogance and sense of invincibility off the collective faces of the Smithfield brass.
In the lawsuit Jane contends:
“In direct contravention of CDC guidelines, at its Milan, MO plant Smithfield (1) provides insufficient personal protective equipment; (2) forces workers to work shoulder to shoulder and schedules their work time and breaks in a manner that forces workers to be crowded into cramped hallways and restrooms, (3) refuses to provide workers sufficient opportunities or time to wash their hands, (4) discourages workers from taking sick leave when the 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.”
The lawsuit also claims Smithfield didn’t begin providing simple surgical masks to workers until April 16th. And even then a mask was expected to be used for a week unless it broke.
In the lawsuit Jane makes this damning charge which sums Smithfield's potential culpability:
“Put simply, workers, their family members, and many others who live in Milan and in the broader community may die—all because Smithfield refused to change its practices in the face of this pandemic.”
Smithfield executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance Keira Lombardo said Jane ain’t telling the truth:
“The health and safety of our employees is our top priority at all times. The allegations contained in the complaint are without factual or legal merit…”
Huh??? Let’s be frank. Smithfield has become a dumpster fire in its handling of the coronavirus and its slow response to the fast moving and aggressive pandemic has significantly contributed to the COVID-19 spread.
As I previously blogged, Smithfield knew it had a coronavirus problem as early as March 26. By that date as reported by the COVID Tracking Project there were more than 63,000 confirmed viral cases and 887 deaths across the U.S.
So what kind of response do we get from to Smithfield’s health and safety promise?
We get Smithfield president and CEO Kennith Sullivan completely ignoring health and safety of its workers, instead saying its workers were “a crucial part of our nation’s response to COVID-19” and that Smithfield would maintain normal operations during the pandemic.”
Let me translate Sullivan’s unfortunate remark in case you missed it.
Uh ... we’re going to operate the same crappy way we always have (in part because OHSA is lax) because we believe in feeding the nation at all costs outweighs workers safety. Profit trumps life.
So Smithfield fiddled while the coronavirus ran rampant across its plants including:
· Indefinite closing April 25 of Smithfield’s St. Charles, Illinois meat processing plant due to COVID-19 concerns where employees say at least 19 workers have tested positive for the virus.
· The shuttering of Smithfield’s Monmouth, Illinois meat plant until further notice.
· The temporary shutdown of Smithfield’s Cudahy, Wisconsin plant for what company officials are saying is cleaning and sanitation. More than two dozen workers have tested positive for COVID-19. One worker suffering from asthma who asked for a mask last month was denied because if the request was granted Smithfield would “have to do it for everyone else.”
· And then there’s this massive Smithfield dereliction of care for worker safety. Smithfield’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota meat packing plant became one of the nation’s largest COVID-19 hot spots with at least 783 positive coronavirus tests and at least 206 other people infected by contact with Smithfield workers.
Anyone really want to believe Sullivan’s claim of compassion for Smithfield’s workforce? Or does Jane Doe have a case?
After touring the closed Smithfield Sioux Falls meat plant the Center for Disease Control made more than 100 recommendations to improve worker safety. Let that number sink in for a bit ... more than 100.
None of the recommendtions were shocking or surprising. Things like providing face masks for all employees, increasing hand sanitizer stations, staggering shifts, provide greater physical spacing between employees, and adding plexiglass barriers where employees must work less than six feet apart.
In other words all the stuff Smithfield was unwilling to do back on March 25.
But the CDC is also partially working in the dark because Smithfield workers were not available to interview; the CDC currently has limited understanding of specific COVID-19 hot spots within the Smithfield Sioux Falls operation.
And the CDC says it will not compel Smithfield to follow its recommendations. In other words it’s up to Smithfield to decide if the CDC report can be ignored in part or full.
Lombardo’s response to the CDC report was less than inspiring, saying "We will thoroughly and carefully examine the report point by point and respond in full once our assessment is complete.”
Which takes us back to Jane Doe’s lawsuit.
Jane doesn’t want any money from Smithfield. She just wants Smithfield to truly care about its workforce. The lawsuit asks the court to compel Smithfield to provide a basket full of safety measures including but not limited to:
i. Providing sufficient personal protective equipment, including clean masks, to all individuals who enter the Plant;
ii. Creating and implementing a social distancing plan for the Plant that will allow the workers to stay 6 feet apart to the extent possible, including on the line;
iii. Providing breaks so workers can wash their hands and providing hand washing stations for them to use;
iv. Providing tissues;
v. Creating and implementing a protocol to clean surfaces;
vi. Altering leave policies to allow workers showing COVID-19 symptoms to stay home without any form of punishment to their wages or future prospects and to clearly and conspicuously inform all workers of that plan;
vii. Developing and implementing a plan to test workers showing symptoms and perform contact tracing for those they have been near who could have been exposed; and
viii. Providing a specific date for inspection of the Plant by Plaintiffs’ workplace health and safety experts so they can determine what additional steps may be required.
It ain’t rocket science. No one should be shocked the CDC recommendations line up almost point for point with Jane Doe’s lawsuit.
But can Smithfield, which is owned by Chinese conglomerate WH Group, find the necessary compassion and empathy to wholeheartedly institute all the CDC guidelines, even if it means lower profits and slower production line speed – not just in Sioux Falls but across all its plants nationwide? Or will Smithfield fight tooth and nail over Jane Doe’s reasonable request for employee protections?
Smithfield says they’re all about worker safety. But COVID-19 isn’t listening.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.