- A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by an anonymous worker and local nonprofit workers’ rights group Rural Community Workers Alliance against Smithfield Foods, which claimed the meat giant was not taking adequate steps to prevent employees from coronavirus at its Milan, Missouri plant.
- The lawsuit had been filed solely to force Smithfield to put in protective measures for employees at the plant. No monetary damages were sought. In his ruling, the judge found since the case was filed on April 24, Smithfield has made significant changes to its plant and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has put in place new regulations, called the Joint Guidance, delineating how manufacturing facilities are to be run. OSHA's expertise puts it in a better position to determine whether Smithfield is indeed doing what it must to keep employees safe, the judge wrote.
- The Public Justice Food Project, which represented the plaintiffs, said in a written statement that it disagreed Smithfield did all it needed in order to make employees safer. "Any changes that have been implemented are the result of the courageous workers who came forward to demand better from the company,” said David Muraskin, who represented the workers. “Their unprecedented stand for workplace safety has resonated across the entire meat packing industry. Smithfield, and other companies across the country, are now on notice that the entire nation is watching their actions and insisting on fair treatment for their employees."
While this case was filed less than two weeks before it was dismissed, the impact of the coronavirus across the country is driving major changes in corporate and national policy. Companies are continually adapting to new challenges from public health and regulatory standpoints.
As meatpacking plants have become hot spots for coronavirus cases, a lot of national attention has been turned on why that is and how to remedy it. By putting the industry in the spotlight — through this litigation, media reports, advertisements and public statements highlighting its fragility as well as executive orders from President Trump — many wide-ranging changes have been made.
In the case of the Smithfield plant lawsuit, the workers' initial demands included adequate and clean personal protective equipment, social distancing so workers could remain six feet apart, handwashing breaks and stations, a protocol to clean surfaces and giving employees with COVID-19 symptoms adequate paid leave without any threats to their future job prospects. Throughout the duration of the case, these demands were amended a few times because Smithfield made many of the changes.
At the time of the judge's ruling, he noted many of the changes that were implemented reflect those the plaintiffs were seeking. Employees get a temperature screening as they walk into the plant and are provided with clean PPE. Surfaces in the plant are sanitized every two hours, and the facility is deep cleaned on weekends. Gloves are sanitized every 30 minutes and there are 110 hand sanitizer stations in the plant.
Work times are staggered to reduce the number of people present at any one time. If employees exhibit coronavirus symptoms or have underlying conditions that make them particularly vulnerable, they are able to self-quarantine for 14 days for full pay. Sick employees are tested for coronavirus.
The case dismissal doesn't meant that Smithfield — or any other processor — is off the hook. What this ruling does is place the burden of ensuring plants are safe firmly on OSHA. This is OSHA's primary responsibility, the judge writes, and the agency should be able to more quickly force a manufacturer to make employee health-related changes than a court can. Additionally, OSHA has jurisdiction over all manufacturing facilities, meaning it can mandate changes that apply to every plant. Any ruling that a single judge makes only applies to the one case at hand, the ruling says.
However, the federal courts can find that OSHA is not doing its job, the judge said. Employees should bring cases forward, he wrote, if they feel OSHA has not addressed their concerns. The judge left the door open for the Smithfield employees to do just that; the case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can be brought again.
There may be more meatpacking employees' cases in the courts before long. OSHA was backlogged with thousands of complaints in mid-April, and that number is sure to have skyrocketed in the weeks since. Some reports have said employees in several industries felt they need to fend for themselves to ensure safety rights. And with some people saying the executive order to keep meat plants open could invite litigation, this dismissal could have absolutely no impact on what is to come.