This story aired as part of SDPB's series on the food supply chain.
The coronavirus pandemic highlights just how fragile our food supply chain is. The Smithfield meat packing plant in Sioux Falls has been one of the nation’s hotspots for COVID-19. The virus infected hundreds of workers and the plant is still coming back from a three-week shut down.
B.J. Motley started working at the Sioux Falls meat packing plant in 1990. Then it was the John Morrell plant. A friend from college told him it was a good place to work with opportunities for advancement. In 1994, Smithfield took over operations. Motley says that’s when things changed.
“Now it’s more demanding. And they, you know, want to get more product out the door. So the line speeds are raised up, you know, and they put more pressure on the employees, I think.”
Motley started on the production line, taking meat off the bone and sectioning cuts into specific weights.
“So it’s a lot of knife-skilled jobs down there where you have to remove the meat from the bone, or some jobs you use the band saw. Which, you know, shapes the ribs. Or another air saw that cut back bones off the carcasses.”
It’s repetitive, labor intensive work. Each department in the sprawling plant has different responsibilities and working conditions. For instance, Motley says the hog killing station can reach temperatures over 100 degrees in the summer.
“The department I was in was called conversation, that was on the 8th floor. And they had to keep that room temperature below 40 degrees, so you had to dress, you know, for the conditions.”
B.J. Motley now heads the union that represents many of the 3,700 Smithfield employees. Many of the workers are immigrants from a number of cultures and countries. He says when the first employee tested positive for COVID-19 in late March, he told company management workers needed protection.
“But, you know, in the beginning, they were…they wasn’t too keen on trying to get any protective [measures] in place, until after we had a certain amount of employees that came down with positive [cases].”
By mid-April, more than 230 Smithfield employees tested positive for COVID-19. The company closed the plant indefinitely.
The same week the plant closed, a team from the Centers for Disease Control visited to offer strategies for a safe reopening. Plant managers told the CDC team workers speak about 40 languages. The most common are Spanish, Vietnamese, French, and several East African languages like Swahili.
One worker willing to share his story, would do so only if we didn’t use his full name. He’s afraid of retribution from the company. We’ll refer to him as “A,” which is one of his initials. We’re not using his real voice, but the speaker says exactly what “A” told me.
He’s lived in Sioux Falls for nearly ten years, after living in Iowa and Nevada. “A” had other meatpacking jobs, so when he came to Sioux Falls he was hired on the production line at Smithfield.
“Like…20 or 50 or 60 people all doing different jobs. So, one individual person assigned in a specific job, so that individual person do that job again and again, all day, for many--eight or ten--hours.”
“A” works in a different department now. He says in the early days of the pandemic, many people worked close to each other all over the plant.
“In one department you can count more than a hundred people working side by side, front by front, you know? Also there’s break time. All those employees get a break time at the same time. It was really hard to, you know, put in place how to mitigate, or handling this pandemic at that time.”
“A” did his best to follow C-D-C guidelines as news of the coronavirus spread. He did get tested, and the result was negative.
He says the company did not introduce protective measures soon enough. That’s what led to Smithfield becoming one of the nation’s largest clusters of COVID-19 cases.
“You know, when they—one person get positive, they’re supposed to do it right away. We’re not seeing all these positive cases if they took that measure right away.”
“A” likes living in Sioux Falls because it’s peaceful and not as expensive as other big cities. He also says Smithfield is a good place for immigrants because it pays well and offers opportunities to move up. “A” says recent protests and thank-you demonstrations when workers returned to the plant in May, were the first time he’d felt appreciation from his community.
“Oh man! That was amazing. You feel some kind of…you know…people are worrying and thinking about us. It was touching.”
When several Midwestern pork processing plants shut down in April, some of the attention turned to the financial strain on the industry. The Sioux Falls plant produces about 5% of the country’s pork products. When it closed, hog farmers found themselves with thousands of market-ready hogs and nowhere to send them.
“A” recognizes the difficult situation.
“I mean, it’s really hard. People have to eat. I understand that. But at the same time, the people who work in Smithfield…their life here was in danger. Not only their life, but their family’s life were in danger.”
He’s frustrated with such a focus on the financial impacts. “A” says the plant had to close to keep workers safe.
“I understand the farmers, but you know, at the same time, they should understand the workers. They were at risk of getting the virus. I know a couple people who passed away. I know those people personally. So, human life comes first then financial issues.”
Two Smithfield employees died from the coronavirus: 64 year-old Agustin Rodriguez, and 61 year old Craig Franken.
The plant reopened in phases and was up to full capacity by late May. “A” says Smithfield has made major safety improvements. There are informational signs marking six-foot distances and partitions in the break rooms. Employee breaks are now staggered. The company provides face masks and face shields, and there is plenty of hand sanitizer.
“They failed back in March, but they took a lesson from March. And they progress now.”
“A” says Smithfield wasn’t the only company to fail in the early days of COVID-19. He believes lessons from the pandemic can lead to a better way to do business in the future.