Smithfield Foods closed its pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., on April 14 due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 at the facility. The company says the plant provides about 4% to 5% of pork produced for U.S. consumers and employs 3,700 people.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem wrote to Ken Sullivan, Smithfield president and CEO, and reported that 54% of the 438 confirmed coronavirus cases in Minnehaha County were linked to the Smithfield meat plant. Smithfield agreed to close the plant indefinitely. Cargill, Tyson and JBS have also closed meat-processing facilities in different parts of the nation.
Marketplace reports that Hormel and Tyson Foods are offering bonuses to workers who stay on the job. Tyson has offered $60 million in “thank you” bonuses to 116,000 front-line workers and waived the five consecutive day waiting period for short-term disability benefits, allowing workers to receive pay while they’re sick. The company said “workers can qualify for a one-time $500 bonus, payable during the first week of July.”
This should not be about money. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average meatpacker in 2018 made $28,450 per year, or around $13.50 per hour, so these increases and bonuses are very attractive to these workers—but it’s not enough to risk one’s life. No amount should be.
If you’ve ever been in a meatpacking facility—and I grew up visiting them with my dad, and have continued to—these are facilities that have been designed many decades ago and rely on workers to be working within inches of each other. Not the best environment under any circumstances, let alone to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s time to start over.
With robotics technology rapidly expanding, it’s time to build meat processing facilities that are based on touchless technologies. Yes, I’ll come under harsh criticism calling me heartless for these tens of thousands of people’s jobs. I’m concerned for their health and my own, and frankly we should have long ago started efforts to retain these workers for jobs that are relevant in 2020 and beyond.
After all Upton Sinclair’s "The Jungle" was published in 1906. But now we have 21st century solutions.