Rural Community Workers Alliance & Jane Doe v. Smithfield

Rural Community Workers Alliance & Jane Doe v. Smithfield

With food chain workers deemed “essential” for the wellbeing of others at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but expected to continue working through their own illness, workers at Smithfield’s pork processing plant in Milan, Missouri took legal action to secure basic protective equipment and protocol changes and stop the spread of the disease in the plant and the surrounding community.

This action, filed in April 2020, was the first lawsuit seeking to secure injunctive relief to protect frontline workers from coronavirus, and was profiled in the New York Times. The plaintiffs in the suit were local nonprofit workers’ rights group Rural Community Workers Alliance and an anonymous worker who was a veteran of the facility’s cut floor and who feared contracting the disease in the plant and spreading it in the community. The anonymous worker’s story was featured in the Washington Post.

Filed by FarmSTAND (formerly the Food Project at Public Justice), Towards Justice, and the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom less than two weeks after Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant shut down indefinitely due to a coronavirus outbreak, the complaint alleged Smithfield’s operations constituted a public nuisance because they unreasonably interfered with the common public right to public health, and because they were a breach of Smithfield’s duty to provide its workers with a reasonably safe workplace. The suit did not seek money damages, but asked the Court to force Smithfield to comply with CDC guidelines, state public health orders, and the guidance of health care professionals.

After we filed suit, the court ordered Smithfield to follow current CDC guidelines, and there were numerous changes to Smithfield’s practices. Smithfield:

  1.  expanded the break area to allow for social distancing;
  2. changed its clock in/clock out policies to allow for social distancing;
  3. reduced the number of hogs it is slaughtering at the plant to allow for social distancing;
  4. began enforcing mask policies;
  5. altered its sick leave policies to allow for paid leave (and that workers wouldn’t lose their right to a bonus) if workers showed symptoms;
  6. expanded its guidelines of what constituted “symptoms” to match the CDC’s updates; and
  7. made the barriers between workers on the line stronger.

The district court stated that given these changes, there was no “imminent” risk of harm and the additional changes we were asking for should be left to OSHA. This spurred our Maid-Rite case, which ultimately affirmed that workers can go to the courts when OSHA fails to protect them from imminent danger.

The Smithfield case was featured in an New York Times editorial about Mitch McConnell’s rush to reopen businesses amid the global pandemic, and the true need for mandatory guidelines to protect people’s health and lives. The case was also featured in Netflix’s Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, in the episode “How Coronavirus Broke America.”

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