Pork giant Smithfield is facing a lawsuit over its failure to protect meat plant workers from coronavirus.
Together with the Rural Community Workers Alliance, an anonymous worker at the brand’s Milan, Missouri, pork plant filed a complaint against Smithfield in federal court earlier this week.
The complaint also seeks to discover whether the health hazards at the plant are classified as a public nuisance, due to the wider impact on the community.
Coronavirus is highly contagious. Earlier this month, Smithfield closed its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant indefinitely following hundreds of coronavirus cases among workers. The pork plant has become the single-biggest source of coronavirus cases in the U.S.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, at least 13 meatpacking and food processing workers have died of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Standing Shoulder to Shoulder
As it stands, social distancing is incredibly difficult in a meat processing plant. The complaint brought against Smithfield says workers must stand almost shoulder to shoulder. It also notes that hygiene is tricky. Workers can go hours without having the opportunity to clean their hands. When they are sick, it’s difficult to get time off.
Workers also say they are not able to cover their mouths when sneezing or coughing for fears they may miss a piece of meat as it goes by. If they miss a piece of meat, they could face disciplinary action, reports the New York Times.
These issues are not exclusive to the coronavirus pandemic. Workers say they are also at risk of repetitive stress injuries. Some have developed urinary tract infections because they are unable to take regular bathroom breaks.
Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s executive vice president for corporate affairs and compliance, told the New York Times: “[the accusations] include claims previously made against the company that have been investigated and determined to be unfounded.”
If the lawsuit brought against Smithfield is successful, the meat company will likely be required to provide better protective equipment and allow workers to properly distance from each other.