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Smithfield cites worker shortage as union alleges poor working conditions

The Smithfield factory in Sioux Falls
The Smithfield Foods factory in Sioux Falls.

The union for the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls is sharing concerns about work conditions as the company says it's trying to address a worker shortage.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 304A sent a news release last week outlining complaints about COVID-19 safety, scheduling, and worker safety and treatment.

Union President B.J. Motley said he's speaking out because local management is not acting on workers' concerns.

"We're hoping that corporate will intervene and say, 'Hey, knock it off, let's get back to talking in good faith, or bargaining in good faith,'" Motley said. "Maybe we can retain more people instead of losing so many."

Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs for Smithfield, said the company was disappointed by the union's news release.

"We certainly don't agree with a lot of their characterizations at our facility in Sioux Falls," Monroe said. "To be fair, there is a labor shortage that's impacting every sector across the economy, and it's certainly a challenge for Smithfield."

The Sioux Falls plant employs nearly 4,000 workers who earn at least $18.75. The plant has many openings in the general production field, Monroe said. It's also hiring for 24 other job categories, according to its website.

Monroe said the company is aggressively recruiting workers and offering $3,000 hiring bonuses.

He said Smithfield had not heard about the union's concerns before the press release. Motley said that means local managers aren't passing along the message.

Workers have been upset for about two months and believe the concerns are related to a transition within the human resources manager position, Motley said.

Concerns include management calling a team in to work over two consecutive weekends. Motley said management then dismissed those who weren't needed.

Monroe confirmed that but said it only happened over one weekend.

Motley said some workers aren't following COVID protocols now that the company is no longer using workers to enforce them. Monroe said Smithfield still has protocols but confirmed it's no longer using monitors.

"As these safeguards become more routine and as we continue to see very positive employee health results, we no longer see the need for dedicated COVID monitors to remind people of things that have become second nature to all of us," Monroe said.

Motley also said managers are speeding up the production belts that transport animal parts through the plant, which Monroe denied.

The union's concerns came after a U.S. House subcommittee released a report that found COVID-19 infections and deaths at Smithfield and other top meatpacking companies were nearly three times higher than previously estimated.

At least 59,000 meatpacking workers were infected nationwide while at least 269 died between March 2020 and February 2021, the report says.

The Sioux Falls plant suffered 1,674 infections among 3,969 employees, or more than a 42% infection rate. Four workers died.

The subcommittee revealed the Centers for Disease Control's draft memo to the South Dakota Department of Health in April 2020 after a CDC inspection of the Sioux Falls plant. The memo said the former CEO of Smithfield flagged 14 CDC recommendations as “problematic."

The CEO said he was concerned about recommendations related to social distancing, asking workers about fever history, and flexible shift and break times, according to the report. The CDC later revised the memo to make the recommendations optional, not required.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.
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