Smithfield Union President says requests were made a month ago for protection
Weeks before the announcement that Smithfield foods had become a coronavirus hot spot, employees were asking for more protection during the pandemic. Kooper Caraway is the President of the Sioux Falls AFLCIO.
"Secondary screening for folks with elevated temperatures, staggered lunch schedule, practicing social distancing on different shifts, and whatnot. The workers and their local union leadership have been pushing for these things for a month and it hasn't been until the last week since management has started to implement these things," said Caraway.
But Caraway says the requests implemented last week were too late to protect those now exposed. A Smithfield employee of over ten years speaks through a translator, not wanting to be identified or singled out.
"There were so many people around him, especially the locker rooms where more people hang out, he could hear a lot of coughing around him. Both of his family members and him, himself have gotten tested and all three are waiting for results," said the translator. She also added that he had decided to not return to work until he felt it was safe.
South Dakota Voices for Peace Attorney Taneeza Islam says most employees don't see an option to walk away.
"They live paycheck to paycheck. If they quit or walk out they are not eligible for unemployment assistance, and that's really what the choice is, right? Do I feed my family, or do I expose myself to COVID and then go home and expose my family to COVID," said Islam.
Islam says the Pandemic Employment Assistance Program may provide some relief for families who care for someone at home, depending on how the state of South Dakota will implement the program. She cites the difficult situation of parents needing to work, but having to leave young children at home who would otherwise be at school.
City and state leaders say Smithfield is taking steps to stop the spread of the virus. The company will shut down the plant for three days starting Saturday to do a deep cleaning and set up other social distancing measures.
HR consultant Dan Oakland, owner of Alternative HRD, says other local companies transitioned earlier to protect their staff.
"We've got one for example that has split their shift. So they have a morning shift and an afternoon shift, so they've got about half the number of people on each shift. They're considered an essential business so they've got to keep production going, but they've made modifications in their scheduling so there are fewer people so they can accommodate that social distancing," said Oakland. Directives for the care of employees during this pandemic are coming from multiple sources including OSHA, The Department of Labor, the Families First Coronavirus Relief act and local government.
A group of attorneys, translators, and supporters have formed the DREAM coalition to support Smithfield workers and other groups. Member Nancy Reynoza knows that amidst the flurry of cleaning, testing, and lost wages is a group of people wanting to earn an honest living.
"We love Smithfield. It has been a blessing to many families. These families want to be working," said Reynoza. "What we're asking is for them to be safe."