- Smithfield Foods is actively preparing for vaccine distribution for its employees and has medical capabilities at its facilities, including through third-party providers, said Chief Administrative Officer Keira Lombardo.
- Although circumstances vary by state and the timeframes are not yet firm, Lombardo said in an email the company anticipates vaccine availability and distribution for critical workers within 60 days. Smithfield plans to communicate broadly about the safety of the vaccines and every employee will be eligible to receive it, Lombardo said.
- Reuters reported that the meat manufacturer, which is owned by China’s WH Group, is one of the first companies in the country to say it is getting ready to vaccinate workers.
Although most companies are not yet publicly talking about how they are preparing for a vaccine, many have been lobbying for months to get priority access. Then last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted to recommend that frontline essential workers, including those in food production, should be among the next in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine. The recommendation was praised by food trade groups, but the exact timeline for vaccine distribution will still depend on individual states, many of which are still finalizing plans.
Even without a formal timeline in place, there could be advantages to Smithfield for being one of the first companies to publicly talk about how it is preparing its workers to be vaccinated in the next phase. State officials have taken notice. The Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services told Reuters they are "fully supportive and appreciative that employers like Smithfield are looking ahead and are actively engaged now, making plans to protect their employees through vaccination when their turn comes." Smithfield and other meat companies have also offered resources, including their ultra-low temperature freezers, to store the vaccine.
Smithfield did not provide additional details on its specific plans for vaccinating workers, but did say that all of its employees will be eligible to get it. Many questions remain around whether people will refuse to take it and whether companies will mandate it. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in guidance issued last month that employers can require proof that employees have received a COVID-19 vaccine, with few exceptions.
Another issue may arise when it comes to unauthorized workers in meatpacking plants. Although Smithfield told Reuters it does not employ undocumented immigrants, PBS reported the Migration Policy Institute estimates the number of unauthorized immigrants in meat plants can range from 14% to the majority — which could pose an issue with vaccine availability in some states that are giving citizens and legal residents priority.
A new CEO, Dennis Organ, recently took the helm of Smithfield and announced its new executive leadership team. With new leadership in place, Smithfield is likely hoping it can have a clean slate and prepare better for vaccine distribution than it did when the outbreaks began.
Outbreaks quickly spread among workers in meatpacking facilities early in the pandemic. Despite more precautions in place, cases have continued to rise. More than 3,200 Smithfield workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least eight have died during the pandemic, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. But Lombardo said Smithfield continues to see a relatively low incidence of cases at this time.
It makes sense that Smithfield is preparing for the vaccine early given that the company has been hit hard by the pandemic. It posted a $72 million loss during its second quarter last year after spending $350 million on costs associated with the pandemic. The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration also issued a proposed $13,494 fine at a Smithfield plant in South Dakota for "failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus." And it also recently received a proposed $58,100 fine from California's OSHA for the same reason. The company has disputed the citations.