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Workers' Advocate Says South Dakota Pork Plant Delayed Action On Coronavirus

The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., is seen on April 8. More than 600 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Stephen Groves
The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., is seen on April 8. More than 600 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus.

A pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., has became a hot spot of coronavirus transmission and now workers and their advocates say the company failed to communicate the risks of possible exposure and waited too long to implement safety measures.

At least 634 employees at the Smithfield Foods facility have tested positive. The facility normally employs 3,700 people, but has stopped meat processing indefinitely after requests by the city's mayor and South Dakota's governor.

In a statement to NPR, Keira Lombardo, the company's executive vice president for corporate affairs and compliance, outlined 17 steps Smithfield has taken to protect workers, including adding hand sanitizing stations, enhanced cleaning and installing plexiglass barriers at its plants. But she said the company is suffering from the same supply chain shortages as the rest of the country when it comes to personal protective equipment.

"We are doing everything in our power to help protect our team members from COVID-19 in the workplace," said Lombardo. "... We have been working to get these measures implemented for many many weeks, all day, every day. But we do not have a magic wand."

Taneeza Islam is the founder of the South Dakota Dream Coalition, an immigrant advocacy group working with Smithfield employees. She says some workers believed managers knew there were coronavirus cases before any were reported.

Islam spoke with NPR's All Things Considered on Friday about what workers at the plant are saying about the working conditions. Here are selected excerpts from the conversation:

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.?

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.

And typically how closely packed together are workers inside a processing plant like Smithfield?

We've heard from employees that they consider themselves to be inches apart. That lunchrooms held 500 employees at a time. And that was still occurring until mitigation efforts were being taken the week of April 6.

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?

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 [it].

Listen to the full audio version of the interview here .

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James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
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