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By Greg Barnes
Early Monday, Lumberton lawyer Dale Godfrey said he got word from workers at Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel plant that the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse might have to close because of an outbreak of the coronavirus.
Godfrey said those reports were bolstered by a plant worker who sent him a picture of a notice Smithfield had posted on the plant’s walls that day. The notice told first- and second-shift workers to call a hotline before 7 p.m. to learn about their next day’s work schedule.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Godfrey felt he had enough information to post a message on Facebook: “Smithfield plant in Tar Heel is shutting down operations indefinitely….it employs approximately 4,500 workers.”
Godfrey’s post quickly received 50 comments. Some said Smithfield was shutting down only the kill floor. Others talked about how a plant closure would further disrupt the nation’s food supply chain. No one denied the rumors.
The plant didn’t close, but employees are now working shorter shifts, the latest in a series of precautionary measures taken by Smithfield in what has become a delicate balancing act of trying to keep workers safe while ensuring the country has enough meat in its grocery stores.
The coronavirus keeps racing through meatpacking plants in North Carolina and throughout the nation. On April 21, five meat and poultry processing plants in North Carolina had outbreaks affecting 118 workers. A week later, the virus had gotten into 13 plants, infecting 479 workers — a 400 percent increase in just eight days. Thursday, the number of cases rose to 604 at 15 plants.
While no plants in North Carolina have been forced to close, the virus has caused the temporary shuttering of more than 20 plants across the country. The virus isn’t just threatening the plants and its workers; it is threatening the nation’s farmers and its food supply chain.
That was the rationale cited by President Donald Trump on Tuesday evening when he invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants around the country open. But workers remain at risk.
Defense Production Act invoked
Although Smithfield didn’t shut down its Tar Heel plant Tuesday, workers said the company came perilously close.
After seeing Godfrey’s post on Monday night, N.C. Health News reached out to Smithfield’s corporate communications office in Virginia in an effort to verify whether the plant would be closing. Jenna Wollin would neither confirm nor deny the rumor.
“The company will make an announcement if there are material changes to its operations,” Wollin replied in an email time-stamped 9:42 p.m. Monday.
At some point that day, Smithfield took down the notices about its hotline without explanation, said Godfrey and Elizabeth Stiff, founder of a Fayetteville public relations company who calls herself an advocate for the plant’s workers.
The next morning, Smithfield’s employee parking lot was filled with vehicles and it appeared the plant was operating as usual. By that evening, Trump had invoked the Defense Production Act, requiring the plants to remain open throughout the nation.
Employees working less for same pay
No one in a position of authority will publicly confirm or deny whether Smithfield had been on the verge of closing. Not the company. Not the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Not the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Evan Yeats, a spokesman representing the union in Washington, D.C., would say only that a decision was reached Monday morning between the company and the union that workers would get paid for an 8-hour day but only have to work 5 ½ hours. Generally, Yeats said, reduced hours allow for more shifts and fewer workers in larger work spaces in an effort to keep the virus at bay.
Yeats said the decision to reduce workers’ hours was reached well before Smithfield learned that Trump was planning to invoke the Defense Production Act.
Smithfield, the union and state officials also won’t say how many employees at the Tar Heel plant have gotten COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Between 4,400 and 5,000 people work at the plant, which is permitted to kill up to 35,000 hogs a day.
6,500 workers affected by virus
According to a statement from the union, the coronavirus has caused 22 meatpacking plants to close across the country in the last two months. At least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers “have been directly impacted by the virus,” and 20 workers have died, the statement said.
Five of those now-shuttered plants are owned by Smithfield.
Smithfield, the state and Bladen County health officials cite privacy concerns as the reason they won’t provide the number of workers who have tested positive for the virus at the Tar Heel plant. The plant is in Bladen County.
In neighboring Sampson County, Assistant County Manager Susan Holder reported Thursday that 21 cases of the coronavirus are linked to a much smaller Smithfield plant in Clinton. That number has been rising steadily. Two days earlier, nine cases were reported.
State health officials are providing far less information. A DHHS spokeswoman said that, as of Thursday, there had been outbreaks of the coronavirus at 15 meat and poultry processing plants in 11 North Carolina counties: Bertie, Bladen, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Robeson, Sampson, Wilkes, Union and Wilson. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases at any plant.
Cases appear to be surging at some — if not all — of those plants. According to media reports, plants with high numbers of cases include Mountaire Farms in Siler City and Pilgrim’s Pride in Sanford.
On April 21, DHHS reported that 118 workers at meat and poultry processing plants had tested positive for COVID-19. Two days later, that number had grown to 190. By Thursday morning, it had reached 604.
The surge is due, at least in part, to testing of symptomatic workers over two days last week at a Mountaire Farms chicken-processing plant in Siler City. A report by WRAL-TV said 74 out of 356 people tied to the plant tested positive as a result of the drive-thru testing.
Ilana Dubester, an advocate for Hispanic workers at the Mountaire plant, said the workers she has talked to want to know the number of cases of affected plant workers so they can decide whether it’s safe to keep working. She said results from the drive-thru testing program show that many more cases exist than have been counted.
N.C. Health News has requested under state open records laws that DHHS provide the number of coronavirus cases from each of the affected plants, as well as the names of those plants.
The nonprofit, online publication maintains that employees have a right to know how many co-workers have the virus so they can better protect themselves. The publication objects to the DHHS claim of protecting workers’ privacy rights. NC Health News is not asking for the names or other personal information from any of those workers, only how many cases have been reported at each of the affected plants.
Trump’s executive order
Trump’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act for meat and poultry processing plants calls them “critical infrastructure.” By approving the order, which was signed late Tuesday, Trump said he hopes to stave off growing concerns that the coronavirus will cause meat and poultry shortages across the country.
At a news conference before signing the order, Trump told reporters that it would seek to shield the processing plants from legal liability if employees who contract the coronavirus while on the job try to sue. A lawsuit against Smithfield has been filed in Missouri alleging that the company failed to adequately protect workers from the virus at a plant in that state.
Workers at Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant have made similar allegations. One worker, who asked not to be named, said Monday she hadn’t returned to work for almost a week because she doesn’t think the plant has taken enough protective measures to keep her safe.
“I just want them to shut down for a while to make it better for everybody else and their families,” the worker said.
Stiff, the workers’ advocate, said she has probably talked to 100 employees in recent days, including some who have the virus. Stiff also believes the plant should close so it can be thoroughly sanitized and make other improvements.
The UFCW demands protections
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, released a statement shortly after Trump signed his executive order.
“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected,” Perrone said in the statement. “The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak… For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers.”
Perrone said the safety of the nation’s meatpacking workers must come first. He urged the Trump administration to “immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected.”
State and industry officials say shutting down Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant would cause devastating economic effects on North Carolina and the country. It could also deal another huge blow to a national food supply chain that has already seen a 25 percent reduction in pork products and a 10 percent reduction in poultry and beef. Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant processes about 7 percent of the nation’s pork.
Even before it was reported that the coronavirus was being transmitted inside North Carolina’s processing plants, Smithfield Foods and the United Food and Commercial International Union said the virus is threatening the nation’s meat and poultry supply.
“America’s food processing and meatpacking workers are in extreme danger, and our nation’s food supply faces a direct threat from the coronavirus outbreak,’’ Perrone said in the news release last week. “Make no mistake, without national safety standards to protect these workers from the coronavirus more lives will be lost, more workers will be exposed, and our food supply will face jeopardy.”
The day Perrone issued his statement, Tyson Foods announced that it would temporarily close its largest hog-processing plant, in Waterloo, Iowa.
‘Food supply chain is breaking’
On Sunday, Tyson Foods took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and the Washington Post to warn about the risk of running out of meat and poultry in the grocery stores.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” John Tyson, chairman of Tyson’s board of directors, wrote in the ad.
Tyson said farmers don’t have anywhere to sell their livestock, adding that “millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities… There will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities.”
State officials say that if Smithfield were to close its Tar Heel plant for any length of time, already financially strapped hog farmers in eastern North Carolina would have nowhere to take their hogs for slaughter. That could force farmers to have to kill some of their hogs.
“If they start killing off their pigs, that’s gonna hurt them financially and they’re already hurting financially,” said Rob Handfield, a professor of operations and supply chain management at N.C. State University. “It could be the last thing for some of these farms, potentially. That’s what worries me.”
North Carolina is the second-largest producer of hogs in the country and the third-largest poultry producer. The state produces about 10 percent of the nation’s pork supply, said Kelly Zering, a professor and extension specialist at N.C. State.
Smithfield, Mountaire Farms and other meat and poultry processing companies have done much in recent weeks in an effort to keep their workers safe and stop the spread of the virus.
Workers’ temperatures are now being taken before anyone enters the plants. Plastic dividers have been placed between workers on the production lines and in the cafeterias. Masks or face shields are now mandatory, hand sanitizing stations have increased, and incentives have been offered to keep employees working or protect them if they get sick.
But many workers and media reports have been critical of the pace of those improvements, saying they didn’t come quickly enough. The plants have become a breeding ground for the coronavirus, partly because employees work elbow to elbow on the production lines.
In a news release last week from its corporate headquarters, Smithfield said some media outlets have unfairly characterized the company’s response.
Among the falsehoods, company spokeswoman Keira Lombardo wrote in the release, is the assertion that Smithfield is putting profits over people. Smithfield is owned by the WH Group out of China.
“We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever,” Lombardo wrote. “Operating is not a question of profits; it is a question of necessity.”
Responding to another assertion, she said Smithfield’s communication with workers about the virus has been “robust and plentiful.” She rebuffed allegations that the company’s offer to pay a $500 bonus to employees who worked the entirety of April without absence amounted to a bribe.
Lombardo also objected to allegations that Smithfield didn’t do enough quickly enough to protect employees, especially in regard to providing face masks. She provided a long list of improvements the company has made to protect its workforce.
Lombardo noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 3 had instructed people and companies to reserve all masks for medical workers and first responders.
“As soon as the CDC revised their guidance to recommend that those outside the healthcare industry wear face coverings, we immediately began implementing that guidance, as well as sourcing face shields,” Lombardo wrote.
She said meat and poultry processing companies have “inescapable realities,” such as employees working close together on production lines that aren’t designed for social distancing.
“During this pandemic, our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation’s food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our employees from risk,” Lombardo wrote. “It’s an awful choice; it’s not one we wish on anyone.”