A union that represents workers at a Smithfield Foods plant Milan, MO, have filed a lawsuit to “secure basic protective equipment and protocol changes that will stop the spread of COVID-19 in the plant and surrounding community.”

The lawsuit, filed on April 23rd, is the first of its kind seeking to secure injunctive relief to protect frontline workers from the coronavirus pandemic. The suit was filed by the local nonprofit union Rural Community Workers Alliance and ‘Jane Doe’, an anonymous worker who is identified only as “a veteran of the facility’s cut floor who fears contracting the disease in the plant and spreading it in the community.”

The suit alleges that Smithfield’s “current operations constitute a public nuisance because they unreasonably interfere with the common public right to public health” and because they are a breach of Smithfield’s duty to provide its workers with a reasonably safe workplace. 

Specifically, the Missouri Smithfield plant is being accused of:

  • Providing insufficient personal protective equipment, including forcing workers to wear dirty masks;
  • Forcing workers to perform their work tasks while standing shoulder to shoulder;
  • Scheduling work time and breaks in a manner that forces workers to be crowded into cramped hallways and restrooms;
  • Refusing to provide workers sufficient opportunities or time to wash their hands; and
  • Discouraging workers from taking sick leave, offering a $500 bonus to workers who do not miss a shift in April. 

These conditions, say the lawsuit, are ongoing at Smithfield’s Milan, MO, plant despite the outbreak at a Smithfield facility in South Dakota earlier this month through which hundreds of the company’s employees were stricken with COVID-19, and at least one has died, which put not only meat processing workers but the whole community at serious risk. 

The plaintiffs are not seeking money damages, but they are asking the court to force Smithfield to comply with guidelines set forth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state public health orders, and the guidance of healthcare professionals. The union and workers are specifically asking for:

  • Sufficient personal protective equipment, including clean masks; 
  • A social distancing plan for the plant that will allow the workers to stay 6 feet apart to the extent possible, including on the line; 
  • Breaks so that workers can wash their hands and handwashing stations for them to use; 
  • Tissues to be provided to the workers;
  • The implementation of new protocols to clean surfaces;
  • Altering leave policies to allow workers showing COVID-19 symptoms to stay home without any form of punishment to their wages or future prospects;
  • A new plan to test workers showing symptoms and perform contact tracing for those they have been near who could have been exposed. 

At the time the lawsuit was filed, there were no confirmed cases among the Milan plant workers.

UPDATE: Pending a court hearing later this week, it's been reported that a federal judge has since ordered the Milan, MO, Smithfield plant to comply with safety recommendations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the CDC.