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I work at Smithfield Foods. I’m suing them over putting our lives at risk for your dinner.

Meat processing plants can do more to protect us from the coronavirus

Employees butcher pork at a Smithfield Foods processing facility in Milan, Mo., in 2017. A worker there is suing the company over work conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

On the “cut floor” at Smithfield Foods, the meat processing company where I work in Milan, Mo., we use knives to butcher up to 1,100 pigs an hour as they come down a mechanical line into specific cuts, like a loin. To keep up with the speed of the line, workers stand so closely together that they can easily be cut by the person next to them. It was a dangerous, hard job every day before the coronavirus.

But managers never blatantly asked me to risk my life just by showing up — until this pandemic. Now just coming to work puts us at risk of exposure to a virus that’s killing thousands of people every single day. And Smithfield, which has already closed three other plants where workers have tested positive for the virus, doesn’t seem to care. That’s why I’m suing them. In my lawsuit, I’m bringing to light what I’ve experienced, and I hope to force Smithfield to change the way they’re treating us — anonymously, because I’m scared that they’ll come after me if they know who I am.

I know of at least eight workers at my plant who have stayed home because they had symptoms of the coronavirus — even though losing a day’s wages is devastating for us, and even though, as my lawsuit says, Smithfield is still disciplining workers who miss a scheduled shift. There are probably more people sick, too.

I believe our plant hasn’t done enough to protect us, and I fear that we could suffer the same fate as a shuttered plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., where two Smithfield employees have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, already.

At first, the coronavirus seemed so far away. Then we heard that the nearby university had told students not to return from spring break. On March 13, our governor declared a state of emergency. A few days later, the local schools closed, and I had to hire a babysitter. As a parent, that made the seriousness of the virus really sink in.

I didn’t hear anything from Smithfield.

Public officials started talking about what people should be doing to stay safe: maintain distance, use protective equipment, wash our hands regularly, and sanitize the spaces and equipment we come in contact with. But, as my lawsuit says, maintaining distance is almost impossible in our plant. On a regular day, we work shoulder-to-shoulder for hours and only get two 15-minute breaks a day and a half-hour for lunch. We wear the same gloves and masks all day unless they rip, and we don’t have time to wash our hands regularly. The cafeterias and hallways are crowded, and so is the area where we clock in. Most people only wear masks when they’re working on the line, not when they’re in the rest of the plant. The company has started doing temperature checks on workers, but a crowded line forms to get checked.

I don’t believe that Smithfield has provided enough protective equipment or tissues, or spaced out workers on the line, or extended our breaks so we have time to wash our hands. Instead, it has extended our shifts — up to 11 hours — on a faster line, which means we bump into each other more often as we work. We don’t even have time to cover our mouths if we sneeze, because the line is moving so fast.

The price of cheap meat? Raided slaughterhouses and upended communities.

On April 2, 70 workers at our 1,000-employee plant signed onto a letter from the Rural Community Workers Alliance, an advocacy group here that I’m a member of, asking Smithfield to allow us to quarantine at home with pay to keep ourselves and our families healthy, or to modify our workplace so we could work more safely.

The week after we sent the letter, Smithfield installed “plexiglass shields” between some workers in some parts of the plant, including where I work and in parts of the cafeteria. But the shields don’t hang low enough from the ceiling to cover everyone’s face. The plant also gave us a free lunch to announce a new initiative: a $500 “responsibility bonus” to anyone who manages not to miss a single shift from April 1 through May 1 — a cash incentive to come to work, which puts our lives at risk. We still don’t get paid sick leave, and the company’s “point system” for attendance means we can be disciplined, or even fired, if we have to call in sick nine times in a year. They say that if we get sent home from work with a fever or a cough, it won’t count against us. And they say they’re paying quarantined workers who have been exposed to positive coronavirus cases to stay home.

(Contacted by The Washington Post about this article, Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, said the company has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. “The health and safety of our employees is our top priority at all times,” she said. “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.”)

The flier they posted around the plant advertising the bonus says, “Heroes come in many forms.” But they’re not asking us to be heroes; they’re asking us to sacrifice our health for their profit.

The workers alliance and I are suing to make Smithfield improve conditions at the plant. We’re working with Public Justice and Towards Justice on the lawsuit. We’re asking Smithfield to take appropriate measures so that we don’t get each other sick and endanger our families, friends and neighbors. Between the long shifts, strenuous work and short breaks, we don’t have time to talk about our fears. But I know about a lot of people who have quit or just called out, even though they need the day’s pay and could lose their jobs for missing a shift. And even though $500 is a lot of money, there are a lot of people who just don’t care about the bonus.

We do not need to become the country’s next covid-19 hot spot, but it feels like Smithfield won’t budge until then. It closed the South Dakota plant after hundreds of workers tested positive for the coronavirus. The company then also closed a plant in Wisconsin and another one in Missouri, after workers at both plants tested positive for the virus. If those locations are anything like ours, people continued on their shifts as the crisis deepened.

Now we are being asked not just to risk our own lives, but to endanger our families and our community. We cannot wait for more sickness or death to change how we work. And a lot of us are afraid that if an outbreak forces the plant to close, we’ll all go without pay because of it.

I fear that speaking out could cost me my job, and I know how difficult that would be for my family. We cannot afford that. Smithfield is the largest employer here, and there aren’t many other local job opportunities. If I could find another job, it would probably mean a long commute that would make caring for my family impossible. On top of that, I couldn’t afford medical care if I get covid-19. But I filed the lawsuit because I feel that I have to protect my family, just like everybody else does.

The poster advertising the bonuses for not missing work says, “At Smithfield, we accept responsibility for everything we do. And we reward those who accept responsibility.” It says we’re crucial to our nation’s response to the coronavirus. If Smithfield really wants to #ThankAFoodWorker like their poster says, they can start by trying to reduce the risk that we’ll die because we went to work.

With severe shortages of protective equipment, nurses and other workers are having to choose between helping others and ensuring their own safety. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Patricia Lafontant/The Washington Post)

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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