Smithfield Plant Unsafe For Workers Amid Virus, Suit Says

By Adam Lidgett
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Law360 (April 24, 2020, 2:21 PM EDT) -- Smithfield Foods has been accused in a federal lawsuit of putting workers at a Missouri processing facility in harm's way during the COVID-19 pandemic by forcing them to work too closely to one another without proper protective gear or giving them enough time to adequately wash their hands.

Nonprofit workers group the Rural Community Workers Alliance, along with an unnamed Smithfield employee, filed a complaint Thursday in Missouri federal court claiming that Smithfield is running a plant in Milan, Missouri, without following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as from state officials, on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Specifically, the complaint said that the company isn't giving workers sufficient protective equipment, that employees have to "work shoulder to shoulder," and that employees have to go several hours "often without time to even cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough, and without any time to wash or sanitize their hands."

Additionally, the company is accused of dissuading staff from taking time off when they are sick and not having any testing plan for employees exposed to the coronavirus.

"Put simply, workers, their family members, and many others who live in Milan and in the broader community may die — all because Smithfield refused to change its practices in the face of this pandemic," the complaint said.

The workers group said the CDC has issued guidance for employers on how to protect employees, including creating flexible leave policies, keeping employees six feet apart and encouraging workers to clean their hands.

But Smithfield has not heeded those guidelines at the Milan plant, the complaint said.

And while the workers aren't seeking any monetary damages, they want conditions to change at the facility. Those changes include putting a social distancing plan in place and giving workers tissues and clean masks, among other things, according to the group.

This is not the only time the company has had to deal with concerns related to COVID-19.

Earlier this month, a South Dakota plant closed after hundreds of workers contracted COVID-19, according to the suit. Additionally, two other plants have closed, one in Wisconsin and one in Martin City, Missouri.

"Our clients don't seek money damages, only measures to protect these essential workers in our nation's food supply chain and prevent the growth of another cluster of illness tied to a Smithfield plant," Juno Turner, an attorney for the workers group, said in a statement to Law360 on Friday. "Workers usually look to the federal government to protect them in these types of situations, but because [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] isn't doing its job, these workers and others are standing up for workplace safety to protect themselves and their communities."

Smithfield Foods' executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, Keira Lombardo, said in a statement to Law360 on Friday that the company will be aggressively defending itself.

"The health and safety of our employees is our top priority at all times," Lombardo 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."

The plaintiffs are represented by Gina Chiala of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, David Seligman and Juno Turner of Towards Justice, and David S. Muraskin, Karla Gilbride and Stevie K. Glaberson of Public Justice.

Counsel information for Smithfield was not immediately available on Friday.

The case is Rural Community Worker's Alliance et al. v. Smithfield Foods Inc. et al., case number 5:20-cv-06063, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

--Editing by Jack Karp.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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