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Smithfield Foods employee sues over working conditions amid coronavirus crisis

The plant allegedly puts Milan, Missouri, residents at risk for COVID-19.

Members of a rural workers' rights group and an anonymous employee at a Missouri Smithfield Foods processing plant have sued the company alleging "horrific" work conditions during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The "Jane Doe" and the Rural Community Workers Alliance filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri on Wednesday against Smithfield Foods Inc. and Smithfield Fresh Meats Corp. seeking a judge to order the company to change the working conditions at the slaughterhouse and processing plant.

There have not been any positive cases for the virus at the plant, but Jane Doe alleges at least eight workers have stayed home with COVID-19 symptoms.

The lawsuit alleges that despite the "horrific situation facing many of its employees around the country ... Smithfield continues to operate its plant in Milan, Missouri, in a manner that contributes to the spread of disease."

The lawsuit comes after a Smithfield Foods location in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was shut down until further notice after more than 800 plant workers tested positive for COVID-19. Another Smithfield plant was closed in Monmouth, Illinois, on Friday after a "small portion" of the 1,700 employees there tested positive for COVID-19.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, issued Wednesday in the wake of the closure of the Sioux Falls plant, called for employee screening, increased distance between employees in the facility, supplementary infection control measures, the use of masks or face coverings and COVID-19 prevention education for employees. The company said in a statement it would reply to the recommendations once its own assessment was complete.

As of Friday, Missouri had 6,625 positive coronavirus cases and 262 deaths, according to the state's Department of Health and Senior Services.

The workers at the Milan plant charge they are forced to work "shoulder to shoulder," there isn't enough personal protective equipment for everyone, there's inadequate time allotted to wash hands, workers are discouraged from taking sick leave and Smithfield has failed to implement plans in Milan for testing and contact tracing.

"Smithfield may perceive that these policies allow the company to continue producing and packaging as much pork as possible for as cheaply as possible," according to the lawsuit. "In fact, however, the costs of Smithfield’s conduct are extraordinary, but they are borne by Smithfield’s workers, their family members, and the broader community."

"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," according to the lawsuit.

Rather than slow the pace of work at the Milan location to protect the health of the workers, Smithfield allegedly has increased the line speed since the closure of other Smithfield plants, "placing more pressure on its workers at the Milan Plant and subjecting them to greater risk of disease," according to the lawsuit.

Jane Doe said in court documents that instead of enforcing social distancing of 6 feet between each worker, Smithfield placed Plexiglas dividers in between some, "but not all workers in the Plant."

Smithfield also allegedly made incentives for workers to not take off work by offering a $500 bonus to all of its workers, "but with an important catch: the bonus would not be available to any worker who misses a shift for any reason between April 1 and May 1," according to the lawsuit.

According to Smithfield's website, in which they outline how they are fighting COVID-19 at its plants, they have "extensive safety measures in place at all our locations [that] are on top of the extremely hygienic and sanitary environments maintained at all times in our industry for food safety and quality purposes. We continue to actively monitor CDC guidance, as well as that of state and local health authorities, and are immediately taking all necessary actions to protect our employees."

The lawsuit is not seeking any monetary damages, but a court injunction that would force Smithfield to change its practices to comply with, at a bare minimum, CDC guidance as well as the guidance of local health officials.

The workers have asked the court for an emergency hearing, but one had not been scheduled as of Friday evening.

A request for comment from Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc. was not immediately returned, but a judge has ordered that Smithfield file a response to the plaintiffs' motion by Monday.

A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods told The Hill it would be "aggressively defending the company in court."

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