A Smithfield Foods employee, along with a local advocacy group, have filed a lawsuit alleging such performance pressure at a Missouri plant that workers are reluctant to cover their mouths when coughing or wipe their faces after sneezing.
The worker, who features anonymously in the complaint filed in a federal court Thursday, along with the Rural Community Workers Alliance, whose membership includes other Smithfield employees, claim in the lawsuit that the company has failed to adequately protect workers at a Missouri plant amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plaintiffs claim that by alleged actions like refusing to give employees time to wash their hands or discouraging sick leave, Smithfield has created a “public nuisance” by exacerbating the contagion risk.
While much remains unknown about the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, it is highly contagious. The virus has spread quickly across the world, with a Johns Hopkins tally on Friday registering 2,736,979 confirmed infections and 192,125 deaths. The true case and death numbers are most likely higher due to doubts about the accuracy of official figures reported by the Chinese regime.
“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,” the plaintiffs said in the complaint.
“Since before the Covid-19, there was a problem with bathroom breaks,” said Axel Fuentes, the executive director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance, in remarks to the New York Times. Since the beginning of March, he said, “day after day, more people are concerned and scared about getting infected with the coronavirus.”
Virginia-based Smithfield told the New York Times that the complaint was without merit, with Keira Lombardo, the company’s executive vice president for corporate affairs and compliance, saying that “the health and safety of our employees is our top priority at all times.”
She was cited by the news outlet as saying that accusations “include claims previously made against the company that have been investigated and determined to be unfounded.”
It comes after Smithfield shuttered other pork-processing plants in Missouri, Wisconsin, and South Dakota over COVID-19 concerns.
Smithfield, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese company WH Group, first closed down a hog slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after dozens of workers daily were testing positive for the virus.
A recent Epoch Times report, based on interviews with three employees who spoke on condition of anonymity, found that the Sioux Falls plant was visited by representatives from its Chinese Communist Party-tied parent company one month before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed at the facility.
Later, the pork giant said it would be shuttering a plant that processes bacon and sausage in Cudahy, Wisconsin, for two weeks, according to an April 15 statement. A facility in Martin City, Missouri, that processes spiral and smoked hams, was also closed.
Smithfield said in the statement that as the supply of raw materials from the shuttered Sioux Falls facility ground to a halt due to the closure, the other plants were forced to close.
“Without these raw materials, the facility cannot continue to run,” the company stated.
A small number of employees at the Wisconsin and Missouri facilities have tested positive for the virus, according to Smithfield. Both plants are located near areas where “community spread of COVID-19 has been prevalent,” the company added.
The shutdowns show the domino effect that can occur when the closure of a major slaughterhouse affects the supply of raw materials for the next stage of processing.
“It highlights the interdependence and interconnectivity of our food supply chain. Our country is blessed with abundant livestock supplies, but our processing facilities are the bottleneck of our food chain. Without plants like Sioux Falls running, other further processing facilities like Martin City cannot function,” said Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan in a statement.
In total, more than 200 employees became infected with the virus at the Sioux slaughterhouse, which produces between 4 and 5 percent of the nation’s pork.
“We are doing everything in our power to help protect our team members from COVID-19 in the workplace,” Sullivan said, adding that the company follows CDC guidance in its “stringent and detailed processes and protocols.”
“We are also being explicit with employees: ‘Do not report to work if you are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. You will be paid,’” Sullivan said in a statement.
Reuters contributed to this report.