Smithfield Foods addresses misinformation amid COVID-19 crisis

Company says it has been working non-stop to secure any and all PPE suited to mitigate risk of transmission for its more than 40,000 employees in the U.S.

April 25, 2020

10 Min Read
Smithfield Foods, Inc.

Smithfield Foods, Inc. has released the following statement, attributable to the company, to address misinformation about the company. The company says while reporting from many media outlets has been fair and balanced, a few have made assertions and inferences that grossly mischaracterize the company, its values and its response to COVID-19. The company addresses them below.

Why we're operating
Assertion … Smithfield is putting profits over the health and well-being of its employees.

The truth of the matter … We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation's food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. Operating is not a question of profits; it is a question of necessity.

During this pandemic, our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation's food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our employees from risk. It's an awful choice; it's not one we wish on anyone. It is impossible to keep protein on tables across America if our nation's meat plants are not running. Across the animal protein industry, closures can have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions up and down the supply chain. Beyond the implications to our food supply, our entire agricultural community is in jeopardy. Farmers have nowhere to send their animals and could be forced to euthanize livestock, effectively burying food in the ground. We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.

Employee relations
Assertion … Smithfield exploits its employees and is blaming community transmission and employees' ethnic or national origin for COVID-19, specifically in Sioux Falls, SD.

The truth of the matter … For decades, we have been an integral part of many communities across the country, including Sioux Falls. We proudly provide an opportunity for thousands of employees, many of whom have come to our country in pursuit of the American Dream, to make a living and provide for their families. In Sioux Falls, for example, our base wage rates range from $15 to $29 per hour. Overtime wage rates are paid at one and one-half to two times base wage rates. During this pandemic, we've added "Responsibility Bonus" premiums to supplement these base rates by more than $3 per hour on average. Our employees are afforded full benefit packages, including medical, prescription, dental, vision, 401(k) plans, tuition assistance and more. Additionally, our workforce in Sioux Falls – and in many other localities – is unionized. In Sioux Falls and across our footprint, we have excellent relations with the vast majority of our employees and our unions, to whom we are grateful for their cooperative spirit and patriotism during this crisis.

We're proud of the multi-culturalism on display every day throughout many of our facilities, including in Sioux Falls. Our employees are our strength. They come from all over the world and speak dozens of languages and dialects. Our position is this: We cannot fight this virus by finger-pointing. We all have a responsibility to slow the spread. At Smithfield, we are a family and we will navigate these truly challenging and unprecedented times together. Our employees are the beating heart of our facilities and we are grateful to them.

Responsibility bonus
Assertion … Smithfield's Responsibility Bonus is a "bribe" to keep employees reporting to work even when they are sick.

The truth of the matter … We have absolutely no motivation – in fact, we are disincentivized – to have sick team members reporting to work. We are regularly telling employees, in multiple languages, verbally, in print and via an employee communication app, "Do not report to work if you are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. You will be paid." Our nation's food workers are fighting COVID-19 by embracing their responsibility to safeguard America's food supply during these unprecedented times. As a company and a nation, we should reward those who accept responsibility. This is why we have dedicated $120 million to providing Responsibility Bonuses to all our production and distribution center team members. Employees who miss work due to COVID-19 will receive the Responsibility Bonus. In addition to our Responsibility Bonuses, we have not furloughed or laid off a single employee, despite closing five of our 40 facilities and numerous foodservice lines falling dormant in still more plants.

Processes, protocols and protective measures
Assertion … Smithfield is not doing enough to protect employees and not moving fast enough to minimize team members' risks of contracting COVID-19, particularly in regard to providing masks.

The truth of the matter … We are doing everything in our power to help protect our team members from COVID-19 in the workplace. We moved quickly to implement an extensive array of COVID-19 protocols and practices. To mitigate the risk of transmission among our employees, we have introduced the following protective measures across our operations:

  • Adopted a series of stringent and detailed processes and protocols that follow, and many cases exceed, the strict guidance of the CDC

  • Implemented mass thermal scanning systems to identify employees with elevated temperatures prior to entering facilities 

  • Boosted personal protective equipment to include masks and face shields

  • Installed plexiglass and other physical barriers on the production floor and in break rooms

  • Increased social distancing, wherever possible (see discussion below)

  • Added abundant hand sanitizing stations

  • Enhanced cleaning and disinfection

  • Explicitly instructing employees not to report to work if they are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms

  • Required mandatory 14-day COVID-19 quarantines with pay

  • Paying employees, including any and all bonuses, when they are quarantined

  • Expanded employee health benefits and removed all barriers in our health plan to accessing medical care including eliminating co-pays for COVID-19 related testing and treatment

  • Relaxed attendance policies to eliminate any punitive effect for missing work due to COVID-19

  • Ensuring employees know how COVID-19 spreads and how to protect themselves and others

  • Stressing importance of personal hygiene

  • Posted employee communications in multiple languages

  • Rolled out employee communication app for smartphones

  • Restricted all nonessential visitors

All these actions complement safety measures already in place at all our locations and are on top of the hygienic and sanitary environments maintained at all times in our industry for food safety and quality purposes.

We are doing everything we can, as fast as we can. There are, however, inescapable realities about our industry. Meat processing facilities, which are characterized by labor intensive assembly line style production, are not designed for social distancing. Employees often work in close proximity on production lines. Similarly, space constraints exist in common areas such as cafeterias, break and locker rooms and bathrooms. These areas pose additional challenges. Consequently, mitigating risk of COVID-19 transmission depends on implementing other aggressive actions, which have already been adopted companywide. We continue to actively monitor CDC guidance, as well as that of state and local health authorities, and are immediately taking all necessary actions to protect our employees.

Since they were issued, our COVID-19 processes and protocols have always followed CDC guidance. Until Friday evening April 3, 2020, the CDC was instructing both individuals and companies – even those in critical infrastructure sectors like food and agriculture – to reserve all masks for healthcare workers and other medical first responders. Indeed, until April 3, CDC guidance indicated that masks were not effective in protecting anyone from contracting the virus. Masks were recommended only for individuals diagnosed with the virus and/or dealing with the tell-tale symptoms. This is what we instructed our employees.

As soon as the CDC revised their guidance to recommend that those outside the healthcare industry wear face coverings, we immediately began implementing that guidance, as well as sourcing face shields. Even prior to April 3, we were attempting to source these items, all the while remaining cognizant and respectful of the CDC guidance and the shortage of masks for healthcare workers. (To be clear, we are not utilizing medical grade PPE, including N95 masks.)

It's important to note, standard practice in the industry had never required all employees to wear masks, let alone face shields. Overnight, the need for masks and face shields was thrust upon us and the nation. We could not make these items materialize out of thin air. If we could, we certainly would. Procuring these items, at a time when PPE supply chains were stressed to the max, was challenging to say the least. Even today, we are struggling to keep inventories in stock. The suggestion that we were slow to react is simply not true and completely overlooks an inconvenient truth – supplies were not readily available.

We've been working non-stop to secure any and all PPE suited to mitigate risk of transmission. It takes time in a stressed supply chain to locate, order and deliver PPE to our more than 40 facilities and for our over 40,000 employees in the U.S. That equates to hundreds of thousands of masks a week, and more than a million per month. Even today, masks and face shields are in short supply. We are competing with many other companies and individuals to acquire them. Because we had been proactive and identified suppliers prior to April 3, we were able to work around the clock to place enough orders such that we could distribute masks and a limited supply of temporary face shields across our entire footprint less than a week after the CDC issued its revised guidance, and in some cases sooner. This was a difficult task and we are grateful for accomplishing it quickly.

Sioux Falls facility
Assertion … The outbreak in Sioux Falls started at the Smithfield plant.

The truth of the matter … Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are now ubiquitous across our country. The virus is afflicting communities everywhere. The agriculture and food sectors have not been immune. Numerous plants across the country have COVID-19 positive employees. Sioux Falls is one of them. Virtually every major plant in the country is dealing with positive cases.

Our country is struggling to put in place consistent and scientifically based testing protocols for COVID-19. The first case of COVID-19 in the city of Sioux Falls was reported on March 15. The first case in our facility was reported eight days later on March 23. Soon thereafter, every Smithfield employee (and later their dependents) were tested by our major healthcare provider in Sioux Falls if they presented any symptoms at all. We're appreciative our employees had access to those tests. At the same time, others in the community were not being tested at the same rate. Non-Smithfield community members were tested only if they were deemed to be symptomatic and high risk, which yielded comparatively far fewer tests.

Without community wide data, it is impossible to determine how the number of COVID-19 cases inside the company compare to the local community at large. South Dakota officials are on record offering their belief that community spread was already happening prior to the first case at Smithfield. Moreover, they voiced their belief that the spread was likely mainly occurring in communities, not in the plant. No matter. The fact is, no one knows for sure where the spread was occurring and we're grateful our employees were tested. This perspective is important and is lacking in many media reports. Sadly, attribution of the break-out to "Smithfield employees" has only served to stigmatize them in the community. That's wrong.

Internal communications
Assertion … Smithfield is not communicating important COVID-19 related information to employees.

The truth of the matter ... Our COVID-19 communications have been robust and plentiful. We are regularly communicating in multiple languages, verbally, in videos and in print, including iconography based signage, emails, Beekeeper (our employee communication app) and on our intranet. In accordance with CDC guidelines, when an employee tests positive for COVID-19, all team members with whom they have worked in close proximity in the last 14 days are immediately notified.

Source: Smithfield Foods, Inc., which is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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