In this April 9, 2020 file photo employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. The plant has had an outbreak of coronavirus cases according to Gov. Kristi Noem. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)

Stephen Groves/AP

More than 1,800 workers at meat industry giants, including Tyson, Smithfield Foods, and JBS have been sickened with COVID-19. 

A worker filed a lawsuit against Smithfield on Thursday alleging workers did not have time to wash their hands or even wipe their noses after sneezing at a plant in Milan, Missouri. 

“The health and safety of our employees is our top priority at all times,” Smithfield said in a statement. “The allegations contained in the complaint are without factual or legal merit and include claims previously made against the company that have been investigated and determined to be unfounded.”

The CDC recently recommend against offering bonuses that necessitated perfect attendance and requiring doctors’ notes to get paid sick leave after inspecting a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with at least 783 COVID-19 cases. 

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Meat processing plants across the US have been forced to close as more than 1,800 workers were sicken with COVID-19, according to calculations by Business Insider. Executives are now warning of meat shortages. Meanwhile, some workers say employers are not doing enough to keep them safe.

On Thursday, an anonymous worker and the nonprofit Rural Community Workers Alliance filed a lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, a meat industry giant that supplies major grocers and chains such as McDonald’s. The complaint alleges that Smithfield failed to follow health and safety standards in a Milan, Missouri, plant, presenting a “dire threat” to workers’ health. 

While Smithfield posted some safety guidelines and erected sneeze guards between workers in certain areas, the complaint says that the closure of other Smithfield plants put more pressure on employees to speed up on the line — making it impossible to follow many safety precautions. 

“Workers can go several hours performing grueling, monotonous work, shoulder to shoulder and sometimes even touching their coworkers, often without time to even cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough, and without any time to wash or sanitize their hands,” the complaint reads. 

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The complaint also discusses a $500 bonus Smithfield offered early in the pandemic, available only to workers that did not miss any shifts from April 1 to May 1. 

“Many of the workers have families, including children they need to support, and many are currently living paycheck-to-paycheck,” the complaint reads. “The $500 bonus is a substantial incentive for workers to continue working at the Plant even when they are experiencing symptoms.”

A Smithfield representative said in a statement to Business Insider that the company has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

“The health and safety of our employees is our top priority at all times,” the statement continued. “The allegations contained in the complaint are without factual or legal merit and include claims previously made against the company that have been investigated and determined to be unfounded. We look forward to aggressively defending the company in court.”

The lawsuit demands the company provide relief, including sufficient personal protective equipment, a social distancing plan, breaks for workers to wash their hands, new leave policies, and a plan to test and trace the coronavirus.

If you’re a worker in the meat processing industry with a story to share, email retail@businessinsider.com. 

The CDC recommends new sick leave policies for slaughterhouses

On Wednesday, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a memorandum on COVID-19 transmission at the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At least 783 Smithfield employees at this plant have caught the coronavirus.

The CDC found that the company had taken actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which is currently closed for sanitation and modification. However, some information on the coronavirus was provided exclusively in English and handwashing stations were limited. 

The CDC offered recommendations on topics including social distancing, hand washing, and communicating to a workforce that speaks 40 languages.

Changes to the sick leave policy were recommended, including ensuring employees do not lose out on bonuses by taking sick leave and no longer requiring positive COVID-19 test or note from a healthcare provider to get paid leave. 

At least three Smithfield plants across the US have closed, with over 800 cases of COVID-19, the vast majority focused in Sioux Falls. Smithfield told Business Insider that, out of respect for Smithfield employees’ legal privacy, the company does not confirm COVID-19 cases in facilities. 

More than 1,800 meat industry workers have caught coronavirus, as many companies fail to provide paid sick leaveKulule Amosa steps out of the apartment she shares with her husband who works at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. He tested positive for the coronavirus this week after an outbreak at the plant.

Associated Press

Many meat packaging plants do not offer full paid sick leave policies. 

Tyson does not offer paid sick leave. The company told Business Insider last week that, during the pandemic, no punitive measures will be taken if workers do not show up for work, and the five-day waiting period for short term disability has been waived. Short-term disability only makes up 60% of typical pay. 

Three Tyson plants have shut down in recent weeks. More than 850 Tyson employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and six workers have died. 

JBS has a similar policy on sick leave. 

The company said that, during the pandemic, workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 will be able to receive short-term disability, waiving a seven day waiting period. JBS did not respond to Business Insider request for comment on its sick leave policy, but a representative told the Greeley Tribune workers on short-term disability would be eligible for “100% of regular pay for four days and 60% of regular pay for up to 25 additional weeks.” The Tribue reported that not all hospitalized workers have been receiving pay. 

JBS has shuttered three plants, with at least 173 COVID-19 cases among workers. 

The Counter reports that at least 14 meat processing plants have shuttered due to COVID-19 cases, with some reopening over the last week.

Executives have warned that closures could cause meat shortages. Steve Meyer, a pork industry economist with Kerns & Associates, told NPR that roughly 25% of pork production in the US has shut down or is working slowly due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Farmers say they are considering killing baby pigs instead of selling them at a major loss due to supply chain issues and other coronavirus-related disruptions. 

“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement after the company closed the Sioux Falls plant earlier in April. 

He added: “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”

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