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Smithfield Workers Sue Over Covid-19 Exposure in Meat Plant (2)

April 24, 2020, 1:02 PMUpdated: April 24, 2020, 3:55 PM

Smithfield Foods Inc. is being sued for allegedly failing to protect workers from coronavirus at its meat-processing plant in Milan, Mo., after at least eight workers have had to stay home after showing Covid-19 symptoms.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Missouri, comes after reports earlier this month that hundreds of employees of Smithfield’s plant in South Dakota contracted Covid-19. Smithfield was forced to close that plant after it became the country’s leading hot spot. Also, workers at a Smithfield plant in Cudahy, Wis., raised concerns after that plant had more than two dozen confirmed cases.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to force Smithfield to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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.

This may be the first Covid-19 related case that seeks injunctive relief to address safety issues at a workplace, says attorney David S. Muraskin of Public Justice, one of the groups representing the Rural Community Workers Alliance. The nonprofit organization, whose members consist exclusively of workers in northern Missouri, filed the suit on behalf of employees at the plant.

Among other recommendations, “slowing down lines so they can space out workers for instance, can accomplish a lot of these goals without shutting down the plant,” he said. “No one’s life is worth your bacon.”

PPE, Leave, Slower Line Speeds Sought

The workers allege that Smithfield, “in direct contravention of CDC guidelines,” provides insufficient personal protective equipment, forces workers to work shoulder to shoulder, and schedules their working time and breaks in a manner that forces workers to be crowded into cramped hallways and restrooms.

Smithfield allegedly refuses to provide workers sufficient opportunities or time to wash their hands, discourages workers from taking sick leave when they are ill, and establishes bonus payments that encourage workers to come into work sick. The company 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 complaint said.

The workers want Smithfield to provide proper personal protective equipment, Covid-19-related sick leave, additional break time, implement proper social distancing, alter the configuration or speed of the line, stagger shifts, and develop and implement a testing and contact-tracing protocol.

The speed of pork slaughter lines has been a contentious issue prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and a group of locals sued the Agriculture Department in October 2019 after the agency proposed to eliminate maximum speed limits for hog slaughter production lines.

The government says faster line speeds could increase line production by 12.5 percent, and that flexible oversight would lead to better control of pathogens and safer conditions for workers. That case is pending in a Minnesota federal court.

“Smithfield Foods has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation,” Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance for Smithfield Foods told Bloomberg Law.

“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 and include claims previously made against the company that have been investigated and determined to be unfounded. We look forward to aggressively defending the company in court,” Lombardo said.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

Cause of Action: Public nuisance, breach of duty to provide a safe workplace.

Relief: Declaratory and injunctive relief.

Attorneys: Public Justice, Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, and Towards Justice represent the workers.

The case is Rural Cmty. Worker’s All. v. Smithfield Foods Inc., W.D. Mo., No. 5:20-cv-06063, complaint filed 4/23/20

(Updated with additional reporting.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Peter Hayes in Washington at PHayes@bloomberglaw.com; Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Carmen Castro-Pagan at ccastro-pagan@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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