Smithfield Foods workers say they aren’t allowed to cover mouths to sneeze

Smithfield Foods workers say they aren’t allowed to cover mouths to sneeze

Smithfield Foods is driving workers at a Missouri pork plant so hard during the coronavirus crisis that they can’t even cover their mouths to sneeze, a new lawsuit says.

The meat-processing giant has threatened to punish workers for missing a single piece of meat on the production line at its plant in Milan, Missouri, according to the federal lawsuit filed Thursday.

That means they often don’t have enough time to cover their mouths or wipe their faces during grueling shifts in the crowded plant, the complaint says.

That’s just one of the ways in which Smithfield — the world’s largest pork processor — has put the plant’s employees at risk of catching and spreading the deadly coronavirus even as the pandemic has slammed other factories, the lawsuit alleges.

The Virginia-based company has flouted federal guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus by providing insufficient protective gear, offering bonuses that encourage people to come to work sick, and forcing workers to crowd into cramped bathrooms and hallways, the complaint says.

The lawsuit was brought by an anonymous plant worker and the Rural Community Workers Alliance, a nonprofit that counts Smithfield workers as members.

Abebe Lamesgin, 54, whose wife tested positive for COVID-19 after working at Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota
Abebe Lamesgin, 54, whose wife tested positive for COVID-19 after working at Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South DakotaGetty Images

“Put simply, workers, their family members, and many others who live in Milan and in the broader community may die — all because Smithfield refused to change its practices in the face of this pandemic,” the complaint reads.

But Smithfield reportedly dismissed the claims in the lawsuit and said it would “aggressively” defend itself in court.

“The allegations contained in the complaint are without factual or legal merit and include claims previously made against the company that have been investigated and determined to be unfounded,” Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s executive vice president for corporate affairs and compliance, told Law.com in a statement.

More than a dozen meat and food-processing workers have died from the coronavirus and more than 5,000 have been infected with or exposed to the disease, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Smithfield even closed a plant in South Dakota after more than 200 workers there caught the virus.

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