Company representatives said in a statement cited by the Monmouth Review Atlas newspaper that the facility, which accounts for some 3 percent of U.S. pork products, resumed operations on the kill floor, maintenance, plant service, and animal foods, on May 2. Employees of the cold side were due back at work on May 4.
About a dozen of the facility’s 1,700 workers protested the plant’s reopening on May 2, with some holding signs saying, “We want screening to return to work,” according to a separate report by the Review Atlas.
Smithfield employees earlier protested at other plants, calling for more protections amid the pandemic.
Smithfield, in a statement, said media were blowing the supposed conflict between the company and employees over COVID-19 protections out of proportion. It emphasized an “ongoing positive and constructive partnership” with staff.
“Media and other reports pitting the company against its employees are flat-out wrong. There is no such division. The company and its team members all want the same thing, namely, to protect employee health and safety while also safeguarding America’s food supply,” Smithfield stated.
In an earlier statement announcing the Monmouth plant closure, Smithfield said it had taken steps to protect employees from the virus, including screening for COVID-19 symptoms, providing personal protective equipment and encouraging its use, installing plexiglass barriers, and asking symptomatic workers to stay home.
“The company has been explicitly instructing employees not to report to work if they are sick and that they will be paid,” Smithfield said in the statement.
Meat-processing workers are particularly susceptible to the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, because they typically stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the line and congregate in crowded locker rooms and cafeterias.
“Meat processing facilities, which are characterized by labor-intensive, assembly-line style production, are not designed for social distancing,” Smithfield said in a statement. “Employees often work in close proximity on production lines. Similarly, space constraints exist in common areas such as cafeterias, break and locker rooms, and bathrooms.”
On April 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure an abundant supply of protein for Americans as plant shutdowns have sparked concerns of shortages.
“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” Trump wrote in the order, noting the large impact that key plant closures can have on the food supply chain.
“Closure of a single large beef processing facility can result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef in a single day,” Trump noted. “Similarly, under established supply chains, closure of a single meat or poultry processing facility can severely disrupt the supply of protein to an entire grocery store chain.”
Trump, after getting off a call with meatpacking executives on April 29, said that because of the executive order, “we unblocked some of the bottlenecks.”
Smithfield Foods said in a statement welcoming Trump’s order that it should make for easier access to protective equipment and testing.
According to a CDC report released May 1, more than 4,900 workers at meat and poultry processing facilities have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including 20 who have died.
The illnesses occurred among 130,000 workers at 115 facilities in 19 states, according to the CDC. Some states didn’t provide data, so the actual count could be higher.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.