Workers at a Milan pork plant are taking a new tack in their federal lawsuit against the plant’s owner, Smithfield Foods Inc., by alleging the company is not doing enough to protect workers from getting sick from COVID-19.
The plaintiffs in the case — filed April 23 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri — include the Rural Community Workers Alliance, a Green City-based nonprofit organization advocating for workers in northern Missouri, and Jane Doe, an unidentified worker at the Milan plant in Sullivan County.
They’re alleging that the company, in failing to comply with basic health and safety standards outlined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is creating a public nuisance that not only endangers workers but also the broader community.
The claim is a novel one, and the lawsuit appears to be the first of its kind to emerge nationally amid entwined concerns about worker safety and the stability of the broader meat supply chain in the United States grow.
Gina Chiala, executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs & Freedom in Kansas City, is representing the plaintiffs, along with attorneys from nonprofit public interest firms Public Justice in Washington, D.C., and Towards Justice in Denver, Colorado.
Chiala said the public-nuisance theory is important because it shows the connection between workplace safety and public safety.
“The suit addresses both the nuisance that [the plant] poses to workers who put themselves at risk every day and how that risk extends to the community in a very real way,” she said.
Chiala said workers who can’t stay home because they lack sick leave go to work sick. They also go to stores in their communities and can spread illness to others.
The workers are not seeking monetary damages. Instead, they’re asking U.S. District Judge Greg Kays for injunctive relief that would require Smithfield Foods to take more measures to protect workers.
Those measures include allowing employees to take regular handwashing breaks, providing personal protective equipment, implementing a social-distancing plan and implementing sick leave policies that do not punish workers for staying home when sick.
Jean Paul Bradshaw II of Lathrop GPM in Kansas City is representing Smithfield Foods. He did not respond to a request comment. In court filings, however, the company said it will seek the dismissal of the case because the suit already has triggered investigations by state and federal occupational health authorities.
In a filing opposing the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction, Bradshaw said President Donald Trump’s April 28 executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open “effectively ends this lawsuit.”
The company also argued that the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction failed to show that Smithfield Foods was not in compliance with OSHA and CDC guidelines, and it noted that state officials intend to inspect the plant May 4.
Chiala said she doesn’t believe the president’s order would affect the workers’ case because they are not seeking to close the plant.
“The plaintiffs in the case very much understand this is essential work. This is work that is critical to the nation,” she said. “They’re just asking that they be kept safe while they work on the frontlines.”
Added Public Justice attorney David Muraskin: “We’re hoping we can do more to protect workers, given [meatpacking] companies’ failure to act, and [we] would be thrilled to speak with anyone who is concerned about themselves or their loved ones.”
In a hearing on the morning of April 30, the parties argued for and against preliminary injunction. As of press time, Kays had not ruled. He did ask the parties for supplemental briefing.
Workers’ concerns are likely to continue to be in the forefront of the national conversation about food supply issues. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 250,000 U.S. meatpacking and food processing workers, has urged Trump as well as Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and other state governors to take immediate action to support workers.
UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement April 30 that meatpacking and poultry workers “have been working tirelessly through this health crisis so that millions of Americans continue to have access to the food they need.”
“President Trump’s executive order now mandates that they continue to do so, without any language that ensures their safety,” he said. “Let me be clear, the best way to protect America’s food supply, to keep these plants open, is to protect America’s meatpacking workers.”
The case is Rural Community Workers Alliance et al. v. Smithfield Foods Inc. et al., 5:20-cv-06063.