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Smithfield Wants Worker Agency To Handle Virus Safety, Not Court

April 28, 2020, 3:40 PM

Smithfield Foods Inc. urged a Missouri federal court to heed public health and workplace safety regulators, and dismiss a lawsuit brought by employees who say they weren’t adequately protected from Covid-19 exposure at its Missouri pork processing plant.

Virus-related workplace safety and public health concerns are “both outside the conventional experience of judges and squarely within the technical and policy expertise of” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Missouri’s public health department, Smithfield argued in a motion filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

The mandatory injunction sought is “truly unprecedented,” Smithfield said. Essential businesses that continue to serve the public and government shouldn’t be forced to comply with “piecemeal and inconsistent safety requirements imposed by private plaintiffs and courts.”

The court will hear arguments April 30 on the injunction request, which seeks to force Smithfield to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, Missouri public health orders, and other worker-safety measures.

The lawsuit was filed April 24 by the Rural Community Workers Alliance, which represents the Missouri employees, after nearly eight plant workers had to stay home because of Covid-19 symptoms.

Earlier Monday, the court ordered Smithfield to submit documents related to safety and “follow all OSHA requirements and all guidance from CDC and other public authorities” until the court rules on the injunction.

OSHA and the CDC recently advised meat and poultry processors to have workers follow basic measures, like maintaining 6 feet of distance between one another and washing hands frequently.

Smithfield argued that the court should deny the injunction and dismiss the suit because OSHA has primary jurisdiction over the matter.

The agency is “in the best position” to evaluate the plant’s Covid-19 safety practices, because it’s been investigating and enforcing them at other workplaces across the country and has already initiated a “rapid response” probe at the Missouri plant, Smithfield said. Additionally, the injunction request “implicates several specific OSHA regulations.”

The federal court should also avoid injecting itself into state public health issues, especially when there’s a significant risk that it might decide the case differently than a Missouri state court, Smithfield argued. Missouri has an active stay-at-home order designed to protect the public from Covid-19 while also keeping essential businesses open.

The injunction, if granted, would contradict that order’s provision allowing essential businesses to opt out of the 6-foot distance guideline if their workers’ jobs require closer contact.

Attorneys from Public Justice and Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom represent the RCWA and employees. Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP and Lathrop GPM LLP represent Smithfield.

The case is Rural Cmty. Worker’s All. v. Smithfield Foods, Inc., W.D. Mo., No. 5:20-cv-06063, 4/27/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen Dailey at kdailey@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com

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