What Workers Are Saying At A Meatpacking Plant Closed Due To Coronavirus Outbreak
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
It has been three weeks since the coronavirus was first detected at a pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. Since then, 634 Smithfield Foods employees have been infected with the virus. The CDC inspected the plant on Thursday. Workers are getting 14 days of paid time off and a bonus in May. No workers would speak to NPR on tape, but some family members would, like Lena Schaffer. Her oldest sister tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
LENA SCHAFFER: My siblings, they take a lot of pride in to be able to provide for their families and the opportunities that Smithfield has provided, but I think the bigger thing is that all this could have been prevented.
CHANG: All this meaning the spread of the virus and the uncertainty it has caused. Taneeza Islam is an immigration lawyer in Sioux Falls who has worked with a number of Smithfield employees. She and the South Dakota Dream Coalition are advocating on their behalf. Taneeza Islam, welcome.
TANEEZA ISLAM: Thank you for having me.
CHANG: So what have workers been telling you about what conditions were like inside this processing plant over the past month as this pandemic was worsening all over the U.S.?
ISLAM: We understand from firsthand employee accounts that they were not provided any protective gear. They were not given any hand sanitizer. There was no social distancing occurring on the lines from at least before March 26 to when some measures like taking temperatures outside of the plant before employees had to come in took place on Monday April 6. So for that period of time, we know that mitigation efforts were not being taken place.
CHANG: And typically, how closely packed together are workers inside a processing plant like Smithfield?
ISLAM: We've heard from employees that they consider themselves to be inches apart...
ISLAM: ...That lunchrooms held 500 employees at a time and that was still occurring until mitigation efforts were being taken the week of April 6.
CHANG: So when you're talking to the workers, where are they assigning the blame for the coronavirus outbreak inside Smithfield? Are they assigning it to the managers - to local and state government? How are they feeling about who should be blamed?
ISLAM: I think that workers right now are just so traumatized. Our communities that are impacted, they're watching their co-workers die. We had our first death just a couple of days ago. No one's really blaming anyone at this moment. They're just scared about if they're going to recover, if they're going to be paid, if they're going to have a job to go back to.
CHANG: These workers have been promised two paid weeks off as well as a $500 bonus. How are they feeling about that? Is that sufficient among the people you're talking to?
ISLAM: I think there's a lot of confusion about the payment that they will receive, and there's just been so much miscommunication - actually, no communication from the employer to the employees directly - that they are unclear about when the plant will open up and what that means for them being paid. Right now, they are guaranteed 14 days of pay since the shutdown. But if the shutdown goes beyond the 14 days, we have no information indicating if employees will continue to receive pay or not.
CHANG: And given the importance of Smithfield, which is a major part of the U.S.'s whole pork supply, do you get the sense that employees trust the company to take their health into consideration enough as they're deciding when to reopen?
ISLAM: I don't believe they do. I think the first death of a Smithfield employee that just occurred has really shaken the community and employees as a whole. There's a strong sentiment that if - proper mitigation efforts, proper PPE, proper social distancing, proper sanitizing - that it wouldn't have been this bad. We all understand that we can't eradicate the virus, but we could have curtailed the containment.
CHANG: Taneeza Islam is founder of the South Dakota Dream Coalition. Thank you very much for joining us today.
ISLAM: Thank you.
CHANG: And NPR asked to Smithfield Foods for comment. The company directed us to a website that lists measures it's been taking such as adding hand sanitizing stations, enhanced cleaning, and installing Plexiglas barriers at its plants.
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