South Dakota meat plant worker says she quit over COVID-19 concerns

Former employee says there's no room for social distancing inside the plant.

A former employee at a Sioux Falls, South Dakota pork processing plant says she resigned from her position over concerns of the novel coronavirus.

“Everybody was [in] a lot of fear [to] still to go to work every single day,” said the employee, who did not want to be named.

But the workers at the Smithfield Foods plant continued to show up, she said, because “they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

Smithfield is the largest pork supplier in the United States and employs 40,000 people across the country. The Sioux Falls plant, which sits in the rural region’s economic epicenter, was shut down by the company this week after at least 600 employees tested positive for COVID-19, according to The New York Times.

The employee, who said she quit last week after working at the facility for more than 10 years, said she and her fellow workers couldn't social distance from each other inside the plant.

“I was thinking that it was not a safe place to work and especially to protect my family,” she said. "There is no social distance and we are working altogether. We are working in lines... a few inches [apart].”

The employee said Smithfield was a good employer. She said she made $17 an hour cutting pork on an assembly line, and she had health insurance and a 401K package. But for her, the risks of continuing to work in the plant during the pandemic weren't worth the benefits.

“They told us in the first meeting that we are essential workers and that we need to keep working to provide all the food to the tables,” she said. “But at the same point, we are humans. We need to be healthy to keep working.”

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Protestors in Sioux Falls took to the streets last week to bring attention to workers’ safety concerns.

“Everybody was afraid that if they didn't get protective gear soon, that it was going to escalate. So we felt that we needed to be the voice of the working company here,” said Nancy Reynoza, a community organizer and founder of Que Pasa Sioux Falls.

Reynoza said she used to work at the local Smithfield plant, and "at any other time" the close quarters "are not a problem," but in this era of COVID-19, “there’s no way” for workers inside to adhere to the World Health Organization’s social distancing recommendation.

"The problem is we're trying to social distance and we have people that are working in close contact with each other shoulder to shoulder, working for hours upon hours," she said.

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken was also beginning to sound the alarm as his area became a growing COVID-19 cluster.

“The cases really grew over the course of four to five days,” TenHaken said. "I don't like making the news for being a county and a city that's growing at the rate we're growing in terms of the number of COVID cases that we have."

South Dakota is one of only nine states without a formal “stay at home” or “shelter in place” order. Instead, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has encouraged her constituents to stay home and avoid large gatherings but so far she has not issued a hard order.

“We have seen such an outstanding call to action among the people of South Dakota,” Noem said during a town hall Wednesday. “The way people have stepped up in South Dakota and taken it seriously has been phenomenal.”

Smithfield Foods announced on April 10 that it would shut down the Sioux Falls plant for three days for cleaning.Then, two days later, the company declared it would suspend operations at the plant until further notice.

The company issued a statement that said, in part, “Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are now ubiquitous across our country. The virus is affecting communities everywhere. The agriculture and food sectors have not been immune. We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation's food supply during this pandemic.”

The company "will continue to compensate its employees for the next two weeks,” the statement continued.

Smithfield Foods isn't alone. Other meat and poultry suppliers have been stricken with COVID-19 cases.

Tyson Foods was forced to close a plant in Iowa last week after an outbreak of COVID-19 cases that left two workers dead and nearly 200 workers sickened.

In a public statement, Tyson said on Wednesday that it was “deeply saddened by the loss of two team members ... Their families are in our thoughts and prayers."

"The plant has been closed since April 6 and remains idle," the statement continued. "We continue working diligently to protect our team members at facilities across the country by taking worker temperatures, requiring protective face coverings and conducting additional cleaning and sanitizing. We’re implementing social distancing measures, such as installing workstation dividers, spreading out work stations where possible, and providing more breakroom space."

Both Smithfield and Tyson say they have implemented social distancing guidelines and precautions at their plants. Some of these measures include temperature checks, providing protective gear to their workers and building plastic barriers between team members.

Beyond the factory in Sioux Falls, TenHaken is taking the city’s mitigation measures one step further. Without statewide action, which he said he agrees with, TenHaken is pushing for a "shelter in place" order for the city, among other measures.

"This virus can spread so unbelievably quick," TenHaken said. "I think that Smithfield would agree with this, it snuck up on them as it snuck up on a lot of other businesses. You know, two cases can turn into 10, can turn into 50 like that."

This report was featured in the Friday, April 17, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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