SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - The union representing employees at a Smithfield pork processing plant in South Dakota said workers were induced to report to work through company bonuses as a rash of coronavirus infections broke out at the facility, resulting in over 80 cases being confirmed on Wednesday.
Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said over 80 employees have tested positive, according to data released Tuesday. United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing employees at the plant, reported the number of people with confirmed cases is higher - more than 120. The Sioux Falls plant, which employees about 2,800 people in the state’s largest city, has emerged as a hotspot of infections, accounting for at least 1 in 5 confirmed cases in South Dakota.
Smithfield employs over 54,000 people worldwide, distributing packaged meat to 5,700 customers in 43 countries, according to the company’s website. There has been no evidence that the coronavirus is being transmitted through food or its packaging, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Kooper Caraway, the president of the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO, which organizes local unions, said that in the last two weeks workers were given incentives to work even when they felt sick. The company offered a $500 bonus to employees who don’t call in sick during April, he said.
“That sounds like an incentive to show up to work sick,” he said.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the company also operated a point system that penalized workers for calling in sick, according to Tina Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for United Food and Commercial Workers.
Keira Lombardo, a spokeswoman for Smithfield Foods, said the company is giving the bonus to all hourly employees, including those who are quarantined for COVID-19.
She said the message to stay home from work if employees feel ill “has been repeated over and over and over again to employees.”
Smithfield said it is taking precautions to protect its workers, including taking their temperatures before they enter the facilities, setting up hand sanitizing stations and administering “boosted personal protective equipment.” The company said it would not confirm coronavirus cases in its facilities out of concerns for employees’ privacy.
Gonzalez said Smithfield began screening employees earlier this week, but that an employee at the plant had tested positive almost two weeks ago. She described the action as “too little too late.”
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The company has recently ordered masks, Gonzalez said, but employees have not been given masks approved for medical protection. Some reported using hair nets as masks.
South Dakota health officials reported the largest day-to-day jump in confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday as 73 more people tested positive. The state has tallied 393 confirmed cases. Six people have died from COVID-19.
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