This week, nonprofit Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA) and an anonymous Smithfield employee filed a lawsuit against the meat company for failing to protect its workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Workers can go several hours performing grueling, monotonous work, shoulder to shoulder, and sometimes even touching their coworkers, often without time to even cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough, and without any time to wash or sanitize their hands,” the lawsuit—filed in Milan, MO, where the anonymous worker is employed—states.

On April 12, Smithfield closed its pork plant in Sioux Falls, SD after more than 200 workers tested positive for COVID-19 and subsequently closed other facilities as a result. Last year, According to the lawsuit, the closures are leading to added pressures for workers at other plants where slaughter speed is being increased. In 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System nationwide, a new rule which obliterates all slaughter line speed caps, meaning slaughterhouses are now allowed to run the slaughter line at any speed they choose, regardless of the consequences to workers and pigs.  

The lawsuit has two counts against Smithfield, one for creating a public nuisance as poorly protected workers can spread COVID-19 throughout the community upon return from work and another for violating workers’ rights to a safe work environment. RCWA is demanding that Smithfield provide workers with protective equipment, implement a functional social distancing plan, allow for sufficient breaks for sanitation purposes, offer new sick leave policies, and implement a plan to test for and trace the novel coronavirus. 

“We do hope that this sets a precedent going forward, not just for COVID, but thinking more broadly about what these plants’ responsibilities are if future outbreaks happen,” David Muraskin, an attorney working on the legal team in the case, told local media outlet Missourian. “The goal is these companies need to be responsible across the nation, so you don’t get things like South Dakota.”

A number of meat companies have closed their facilities after workers contracted and spread COVID-19 in their respective regions, including Tyson Foods which closed its largest pork plant in Waterloo, IA this week after 180 workers tested positive.

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