A year into COVID, Smithfield workers still have questions

By MAKENZIE HUBER and ALFONZO GALVAN
Sioux Falls Argus Leader

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Sandra Silbert wasn't taking any chances.

She asked for a mask in March 2020 at the Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls. When she didn't get one, she made them herself out of an extra set of curtains at home.

She asked her manager how the plant would enforce social distancing before the deadly coronavirus made its way to her department. Her concerns fell on deaf ears, she said.

She wrote letters to Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, asking for them to help keep Smithfield Foods workers safe. By the time she got a response, it was too late.

She talked to national media outlets about her work in the last year, outraged the plant still hasn't paid its employees hazard pay. Instead, they were offered a $500 "responsibility bonus" at the beginning of the pandemic if they reported to work for a month without an unexcused absence.

Silbert had done everything she could think of to make authorities care about the thousands of workers at Smithfield Foods — a majority of whom are refugees and immigrants.

It's been a year since the outbreak now, but she's still trying to make people listen, the Argus Leader reported.

The Sioux Falls meatpacking plant quickly became one of the largest outbreaks in the country, with at least 1,294 employees contracting the coronavirus and four employees dying, according to a report from OSHA. 

Smithfield officials announced the plant would close indefinitely only 17 days after its first COVID-19 case. More than 235 Smithfield employees contracted COVID-19 in two weeks. Several employees refused to work anyway because they were scared of contracting the virus, workers told the Argus Leader at the time.

While progress has been made — the plant shut down temporarily, precautions have been installed and on-site vaccinations are taking place — Silbert still wonders:

Why didn't anyone listen to them when they needed it most? 

Why did her coworkers have to pay for others' negligence?

"I prayed, 'Please, God, let me return home.'"

By the time Smithfield implemented temperature checkpoints and sanitizer stations at the beginning of April, it was too late, Delfidia Jaen said.

Jaen, 65, is Silbert's cousin. She works in the packaging department at Smithfield. She was already hospitalized with the virus by the time Smithfield closed.

Jaen stayed in the hospital for two weeks. She didn't know if she'd make it through.

"They had it hidden there, so people wouldn't find out there were sick people," she said of Smithfield in Spanish. "I haven't recovered yet. I have a lot of pain in my lungs, headaches and bone aches."

Silbert, 48, also contracted COVID-19 in early April after reporting chills and a fever. The cancer survivor was the 39th person to be sent home that day by lunch break.

"When I got to my locker, I prayed, 'Please, God, let me return home,'" she said. 

Silbert returned to work May 8, after Smithfield reopened.

Jaen, though, didn't return to work for seven months, since she was given paid leave from Smithfield because she was older than 65. A 21-year employee, Jaen never considered quitting until the pandemic. She wasn't the only one.

Some coworkers returned to Mexico to wait out the virus, Silbert said. Others who stayed justified their essential status because their work was critical to the food supply.

Achut Deng, who quickly became the national face for the outbreak after interviewing with national media, felt the same.

Deng was promoted from a lead at Smithfield to a manager role in July 2020. While there was plenty of negative attention on the meatpacking industry and treatment of essential workers, Deng didn't pay much mind.

"Nurses were forced to go to work too," Deng said. "The difference for me is that I'm working to provide food instead of medicine. I didn't feel proud when the pandemic came out in the beginning. But if I'm told to work to save the world by providing food, then OK, I do that. I have to be positive. I don't have time for negativity."

When Jaen and Silbert returned to work, there were Plexiglass barriers installed, social distancing was easier and facemasks were required.

But there was still work to do, they said.

"Survivor of domestic violence, survivor of breast cancer and now a COVID-19 survivor," Silbert said. "These are situations in life that have made me stronger and kept me going."

Tolcha Mesele can pinpoint what he believes led to the Smithfield Foods outbreak.

It was a cocktail of miscommunication:

—A lack of guidelines from Smithfield, the state and the city in employees' native languages;

—A flurry of online rumors that ignited a panic;

—And a lack of guidance from federal agencies on how Smithfield should handle the coronavirus pandemic while still keeping the meat industry running at a healthy pace.

Smithfield wasn't providing masks because they weren't available — they were needed for hospital workers more, said Mesele, senior manager for community development at Smithfield.

Things moved too quickly, and Smithfield couldn't react fast enough, he said.

But at that same time in late March and early April, meatpacking plants around the country temporarily closed or shifted operations after COVID-19 cases spiked there.

Tyson Foods, Inc. closed some plants the first week of April after dozens of workers tested positive. JBS Beef in Pennsylvania scaled back hours of production after employees began spreading the disease among one another.

"We wish we would have had more cooperation from agencies like the CDC or OSHA," Mesele said. "We made lots of attempts for direction. Do we shut down or not? And we did what we thought was the right thing, legal thing, logical thing — but there was a lot of lag time to create solutions to problems."

Chris Deutsch, a historian of meat politics and policy in the 20th Century and teaching postdoctoral at the University of Missouri, wasn't surprised when he heard about the COVID-19 outbreak at Smithfield and other meatpacking plants.

It was only a matter of time for the coronavirus to hit meatpacking plants, and everyone — from regulators to industry professionals to government leaders to healthcare professionals to the general public — should have known the industry was going to be hit hard.

"The working quarters are close. There's a lack of access to sanitary products. There are abysmal working conditions," Deutsch said. "There's less pay, which leads to less access to proper medical care, and workers are typically of a culture of nuclear family and single-family housing units."

At first, meatpacking plants attempted to obscure what they were doing across the country, Deutsch said. Then, industry leaders started to call out its own leadership and address the crisis.

Mesele, a refugee from Kenya who grew up in Sioux Falls and graduated from Washington High School, was promoted to his new role in September 2020. At the time of the outbreak, he was a superintendent of a department and leading a team of nearly 60 people.

While Mesele felt confident in Smithfield's response to the pandemic, he recognized other workers felt scared. He received plenty of messages from his employees during the shutdown, asking for reassurance they wouldn't be laid off and the plant would reopen.

"People didn't believe it," Mesele said. "A lot of people started looking for other jobs. I personally called my employees when we found out that the plant was reopening."

That lack of clear communication led to the panic and confusion, most likely, Mesele said. There are about 140 languages spoken inside Smithfield, and many workers are not fluent in English.

Taneeza Islam, executive director of South Dakota Voices for Peace, led a small team to translate pandemic information for refugees and immigrants in the Sioux Falls area.

"We had to do something big, otherwise our communities were forgotten. They're not part of the equation here when people are talking about resources," Islam said. "I believe very strongly that COVID in Sioux Falls and in the state in general has really exposed the institutional racism we have against limited English proficient communities here."

Non-English speakers needed food and clothing and information on how to apply for unemployment assistance. But the information about those resources, whether it was Feeding South Dakota or the One Sioux Falls Fund, were in English.

The news, the public safety announcements from the city and the state — everything the general public had access to — was only available in English.

Smithfield's inability to inform their workers was only one small issue in how leadership throughout Sioux Falls and South Dakota failed refugee and immigrant populations, Islam said.

"We know our communities, and that's why we can serve them quickly and efficiently," Islam said. "People become paralyzed when they don't have access to the right information. If you don't know what's out there, you can't access it."

Since Jaen's return to Smithfield, she's seen a relaxation of precautions inside Smithfield, she said. Her biggest concern is a change in protocol during the shift change, when as many as 300 employees come and go from the site, change in crowded locker rooms and don't socially distance themselves from each other.

"Everyone wants to punch out at the same time," Jaen said.

No one wants to be late for work. 

"When it comes to getting paid, it's the same old pile of people," she said. "There's no more 6 feet of separation — there's nothing."

Smithfield worker Luis Angulo Marty, 22, noticed the same thing. But he thinks Smithfield is maintaining COVID-19 precautions well enough. Marty worked at Smithfield nearly three years ago, quit and returned to the plant in early 2021.

He was "a little scared" about returning to the plant with such an outbreak history, but said his decision came down to finances.

"I never went by obligation, I went out of necessity," said Marty, who also supports his wife.

Marty is one of several Smithfield employees who refused to get an on-site Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine the company offered its employees March 26.

Now, Silbert's mission is to educate her diverse set of coworkers about the vaccine. It's been an ongoing issue at Smithfield, properly educating the diverse workforce on the pandemic and the vaccine. 

Nearly a year after the first case was reported at Smithfield, the company hosted on-site vaccinations for 500 people in late March. It's a step forward, but Smithfield's response hasn't been enough, Silbert said.

She wants an incentive for Smithfield workers to get vaccinated, and Smithfield workers still haven't received hazard pay. Instead, they gave a $500 "responsibility bonus" at the beginning of the pandemic for workers who came to work. Employees who called in sick or had PTO during that time still got the $500 bonus, according to a spokesperson with Smithfield.

"We still feel alone, to be honest," Silbert said, even despite the changes that have been made at the plant. "It's a pity people keep working even though they're afraid. We're simply not important."

While any changes or added regulations or oversight to the meatpacking industry would likely require years of hearings about what it's like inside meatpacking plants, Deutsch said he's yet to hear of any lawmaker who has requested or successfully put together any hearings.

"This shows in real-time consumers' and workers' voices have become less important," Deutsch said. "The pressure to not make changes — because it's more cost-effective — is greater than the pressure to improve the quality of life for meatpacking plant workers."

That includes line speeds, distance between workers on the lines, regular breaks and personal protective equipment.

"The conditions inside meatpacking plants in February 2020 were intentional, and they were done on purpose," Deutsch said. "Since they are the result of human choice, to put them back is very possible because it was a choice that drove the issue in the first place."

While Mesele said that Smithfield has invested hundreds of millions of dollars for thermal screening, barriers, masks and cleaning – and he doesn't imagine the company simply getting rid of it all in a year – Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer for Smithfield Foods, did not say whether the company will continue to keep precautions post-pandemic.