Smithfield Foods Inc. said in federal court that a recent presidential executive order keeping U.S. meat processors open during the pandemic supersedes a worker advocacy group’s efforts to enforce virus-related worker safety measures.
The Rural Community Workers Alliance, which represents Smithfield workers in Missouri, is seeking an order to force the company to comply with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health officials, as well as other worker protection requirements, at a Milan, Mo., plant. Nearly eight plant workers already have been forced to stay home because of Covid-19 symptoms.
A court order would allow the group to inspect the plant and would force the company to make certain safety changes.
Calling a court order to allow plaintiffs to inspect the plant “unprecedented,” Alexandra B. Cunningham, with Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP in Richmond, Va., represented Smithfield at the hearing Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.
Cunningham said President
Trump’s April 28 executive order requires meat and poultry processing plants to remain open to prevent food shortages. More than a dozen plants, including Smithfield properties, had closed after hundreds of workers contracted the coronavirus. OSHA has opened inspections at several plants with Covid-19 outbreaks.
Shortly after the order was issued, the Labor Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced that they likely wouldn’t cite plants for health violations if those employers try in “good faith” to follow guidance from OSHA and the CDC.
“In this Covid world things are changing very quickly,” Cunningham said, adding that the issue comes down to worker advocacy groups wanting “to tell us how many hogs we should be processing. That realm has been clearly vested with the USDA, also in conjunction as the executive order and the USDA.”
Smithfield workers allege that the company operates, “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.
David S. Muraskin of Public Justice, one of the groups representing the Rural Community Workers Alliance—whose members are almost all from northern Missouri—filed the suit on behalf of the plant’s employees.
“Our request asks Smithfield to comply with the CDC guidelines,” Muraskin said during the hearing. “What we’re asking for is what will keep people on the job—it’s Smithfield’s misconduct that has closed these plants.”
Smithfield’s attorneys argued in a motion filed April 27 that the case should be dismissed as the safety issues are “both outside the conventional experience of judges and squarely within the technical and policy expertise of” OSHA and Missouri’s public health department.
“The company has spent the last week focused on the continuous improvements we’re making as a plant,” Cunningham said during the hearing.
The case is Rural Cmty. Workers All. v. Smithfield Foods, Inc., W.D. Mo., No. 5:20-cv-06063, Hearing 4/30/20.