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Meat processing plants have been ordered to stay open during the pandemic. For workers, the coronavirus complicates an already dangerous job.

Protective barriers between Tyson Foods team members at the company's Berry Street plant in Springdale, Ark. April 24, 2020
  • Workers at meat industry giants, including Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, have tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • Major facilities, like a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that produces about 5% of the country's pork supply, have been forced to shutter.
  • A lawsuit filed on April 23 alleges that Smithfield employees did not even have time to wash their hands or wipe their noses.
  • Meat industry executives say longterm closures of meat processing plants would push America toward food shortages.
  • President Donald Trump signed an executive order on April 28 demanding that meat processing plants stay open amid the pandemic to protect the nation's food supply chain.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
SEE ALSO: Trump plans on forcing meat plants to stay open with new executive order under the Defense Production Act, despite severe coronavirus outbreaks
SEE ALSO: Trump used the Defense Production Act to order meat processing plants to stay open amid the coronavirus pandemic. Here are all the unusual ways he has used the powers of a 'wartime president' so far.

Kulule Amosa told the Associated Press that her husband earns $17.70 an hour at a South Dakota pork plant doing a job so physically demanding it can only be performed in 30-minute increments. After each shift in the second week of April, he left exhausted as usual — but he didn't want to go home.

He was scared he would infect his pregnant wife with the coronavirus — so much so that when he pulled into the parking lot of their apartment building, he would call Amosa to tell her he wasn't coming inside. When he eventually did, he would sleep separately from her in their two-bedroom apartment.
"I'm really, really scared and worried," Amosa told the Associated Press in April 2020.

This was no abstract worry: At the Smithfield Foods plant where he worked, the locker rooms were so tightly packed Amosa's husband said he sometimes had to push his way through a crowd.

Coughs echoed through the bathrooms.
The plant in Sioux Falls clocked case after case and was finally forced to close on April 12. It has at least 783 reported cases, making it among the largest known clusters in the United States.

The concentration of cases has highlighted the particular susceptibility of meat processing workers, who stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the line and congregate in crowded locker rooms and cafeterias.

As many as half a dozen plants shut in mid-April because of outbreaks. Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan said the closure of the plant, which produces roughly 5% of the U.S. pork supply each day, was "pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply," in a statement after the company closed the Sioux Falls plant earlier in April.

A Smithfield employee filed a lawsuit against the company on April 23, expressing concern about the working conditions.

The lawsuit alleges that workers did not have time to wash their hands or even wipe their noses after sneezing at a plant in Milan, Missouri. "Workers can go several hours performing grueling, monotonous work, shoulder to shoulder and sometimes even touching their coworkers, often without time to even cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough, and without any time to wash or sanitize their hands," the complaint reads.
A Smithfield representative said in a statement to Business Insider that the company has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

The Smithfield plant is vital to a burgeoning immigrant community in Sioux Falls, offering opportunities for even those without a college degree or fluent English. Smithfield offers pay starting at over $15 an hour, health insurance, and plenty of overtime.

Amosa and her husband, who are originally from Ethiopia, once saw working at the Sioux Falls plant, where she also had a job until she became pregnant, as key to building their new life in the United States: It was well paid, union employment that gave them a community.
But amid the coronavirus pandemic, the couple found themselves — like many workers whose jobs cannot be done remotely — exposed on two fronts: Both their health and their livelihoods were at risk. The couple agreed to speak to The Associated Press on the condition that Amosa's husband not be named because he feared losing his job.
The plant has attracted a diversifying workforce to the city, where Somali and Vietnamese restaurants have joined diners and craft breweries. But the city remains fairly divided, with many immigrants living in neighborhoods near the plant, which employs 3,700 people in a city of about 180,000.
The diverse makeup of the meat processing plant is not unique to Smithfield's Sioux Falls plant, other major meat processing companies like Tyson are structured similarly.

Even before the coronavirus began sickening workers, jobs in the meatpacking industry have been considered among the most dangerous in the US. Workers are exposed to a long list of dangers from hazardous chemicals to sharp knives.

Just last month, a maintenance worker at a Tyson plant in Kansas died after investigators say he got caught up in the assembly line belt.
The work is physical, starting with butchering hogs that weigh nearly 300 pounds. On the processing line, repetitive-motion injuries are common. One worker at Smithfield described often waking up with his right hand so swollen he couldn't make a fist.
Union leaders and immigrant advocates cheered the decision to close the plant indefinitely but wish more had been done sooner.
Smithfield spokeswoman Keira Lombardo told the Associated Press the difficulty in getting masks and thermal scanners led to delays in implementing some safety measures when the plant was open.

Now, plants have started adding extra hand-sanitizing stations, scanning employees' temperatures before they enter, and installing Plexiglas barriers in some areas.

Six current employees interviewed by the Associated Press who, like Amosa's husband, insisted on anonymity because they feared they would be fired described far more haphazard measures. They said they were given flimsy masks made of hairnet-like material, hand-washing stations were in disrepair, and there was pressure to keep working even if they felt sick.
One employee told his supervisor on March 30 that he had a fever the previous day, but he was told to report to work and not to tell anyone about the fever. He worked that day, missed the next two, and returned when the fever broke, he said.
"No one asked if I went to the doctor, if I was tested," the employee said.
Lombardo said Smithfield "fully rejects any claims that employees were pressured to report to work," calling it "completely counterproductive" to do so.

Smithfield is one of the plants that intend to clean the facility and implement more protections in the hopes of reopening. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control sent a team to the plant in mid-April to examine how it can be safely restarted.

The outbreak at the plant has also presented a significant test to a governor who has resisted issuing sweeping stay-at-home orders. As Republican Gov. Kristi Noem was pressed to impose tighter restrictions on Sioux Falls, she fired back that plant workers were deemed essential and would have been reporting for duty regardless.
But reopening may be difficult, even if the South Dakota governor says it could happen in a matter of days.
Workers say they cannot fathom how butchering lines could be reconfigured to accommodate social distancing, even with new partitions and thermal imaging.

Trump has mandated meat processing plants reopen as America barrels toward meat shortages.

In the face of positive coronavirus cases at meat processing plants, Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan said earlier in April that "the right thing for Americans is that we operate these plants."
Tyson Chairman John Tyson agreed and wrote in an open letter that "millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain" as meat processing plants close.
On April 28, Trump utilized wartime powers act to demand that meat processing plants stay open during the pandemic. The order classified meat processing as critical infrastructure.
To make reopening more feasible, Tyson is doubling bonuses and increasing health benefits, like short-term disability leave, for frontline workers.
Meanwhile, Amosa and her husband are both home now — nervously awaiting their first child. But they also have a new worry: His coronavirus test came back positive.
Associated Press writers Stephen Groves and Amy Forliti contributed to this report.

* This article was originally published here Press Release Distribution
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