KANSAS CITY, MO. – A federal judge ordered Smithfield Foods Inc. to comply with public health guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect workers at the company’s Milan, Mo., pork processing plant from the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Plaintiffs are asking the court to declare that Smithfield’s alleged failure to implement appropriate worker protections during the pandemic constitutes a public nuisance and is a violation of the right to a safe workplace under Missouri law.
“This suit does not seek money damages,” the court document stated. “All Plaintiffs seek is 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.”
Smithfield had requested until May 4 to respond to the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction. A hearing on plaintiffs’ motion will be held April 30, via videoconference. In the meantime, the court ordered that Smithfield comply and “follow all OSHA requirements and all guidance from CDC and other public authorities.”
According to the lawsuit, Smithfield:
- provides insufficient personal protective equipment;
- forces workers to work shoulder to shoulder and schedules their worktime and breaks in a way that forces workers to be crowded into cramped hallways and restrooms;
- refuses to provide workers enough opportunities or time to wash their hands;
- discourages workers from taking sick leave when they are sick; and
- has failed to implement a plan for testing and contact-tracing workers who may have been exposed to the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.
The lawsuit also alleges that the Responsibility Bonus designed to reward employees for maintaining their attendance instead is an incentive for workers to come to work sick.
“Few things are more essential during the current pandemic than our food system, yet corporate-owned facilities like the one in our suit continue to put workers, communities and public health at risk,” said David Muraskin, litigation director for Public Justice’s Food Project who is counsel on the lawsuit. “These workers, through the civil justice system, are standing up for their co-workers, and the health and safety of their families, by demanding that Smithfield take common-sense steps to protect its workforce from the serious and urgent risk of contracting coronavirus. As the lawsuit filed yesterday makes vividly clear, Smithfield’s tagline – ‘Good food. Responsibly.’ – is more of a marketing ploy than a promise to its people or customers.”
Smithfield Foods vigorously denied the allegations.
“Reporting from many media outlets has been fair and balanced,” the company said. “However, a few have made assertions and inferences that grossly mischaracterize the company, its values and its response to COVID-19.”
Smithfield continued to operate pork plants to sustain the nation’s food supply during the pandemic, the company said, and not to put profits before workers.
“We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. Operating is not a question of profits; it is a question of necessity.
“During this pandemic, our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation’s food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our employees from risk. It’s an awful choice; it’s not one we wish on anyone. It is impossible to keep protein on tables across America if our nation’s meat plants are not running. Across the animal protein industry, closures can have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions up and down the supply chain. Beyond the implications to our food supply, our entire agricultural community is in jeopardy. Farmers have nowhere to send their animals and could be forced to euthanize livestock, effectively burying food in the ground. We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.”
Smithfield also dismissed claims that the Responsibility Bonus is a "bribe" to keep employees coming to work when they are sick.
“We have absolutely no motivation – in fact, we are disincentivized – to have sick team members reporting to work,” the company said. “We are regularly telling employees, in multiple languages, verbally, in print and via an employee communication app, ‘Do not report to work if you are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. You will be paid.’
“Our nation’s food workers are fighting COVID-19 by embracing their responsibility to safeguard America’s food supply during these unprecedented times. As a company and a nation, we should reward those who accept responsibility. This is why we have dedicated $120 million to providing Responsibility Bonuses to all our production and distribution center team members. Employees who miss work due to COVID-19 will receive the Responsibility Bonus.
“In addition to our Responsibility Bonuses, we have not furloughed or laid off a single employee, despite closing five of our 40 facilities and numerous foodservice lines falling dormant in still more plants.”
The full complaint can be found here.