When running at full capacity, it processes 19,500 freshly-slaughtered hogs per day, slicing, grinding and smoking them into millions of pounds of bacon, hot dogs and spiral-cut hams. With 3,700 workers, it is also the fourth-largest employer in the city.
…”There had been [rumors] there were cases even before that,” she recalled. “I heard about people getting [hospitalized] from Smithfield specifically. They only know from word of mouth.”
…Her parents, two long-time Smithfield employees with whom she is especially close, told her what was happening at the factory that day.
…”My parents don’t know English. They can’t advocate for themselves,” said Julia. “Someone has to talk for them.”
…Her mother and father continued to report to a factory they knew could be contaminated, to jobs they could not afford to lose. They stood side-by-side less than a foot away from their colleagues on production lines, they passed in and out of crowded locker rooms, walkways and cafeterias.
During that time, the number of confirmed cases among Smithfield employees slowly mounted, from 80 to 190 to 238.
By 15 April, when Smithfield finally closed under pressure from the South Dakota governor’s office, the plant had become the number one hotspot in the US, with a cluster of 644 confirmed cases among Smithfield employees and people who contracted it from them.
…The Smithfield pork plant, located in a Republican-led state that is one of five in the US that has not issued any kind of shelter-in-place order, has become a microcosm illustrating the socioeconomic disparities laid bare by the global pandemic. While many white-collar workers around the country are sheltering in place and working from home, food industry workers like the employees at Smithfield are deemed “essential” and must remain on the front lines.
…They allege early requests for personal protective equipment were ignored, that sick workers were [incentivized] to continue working, and that information regarding the spread of the virus was kept from them, even when they were at risk of exposing family and the broader public.
…Multiple workers said – and photos sent to the BBC seem to confirm – that personal protective equipment came in the form of beard nets to wear over their faces, which do not protect from airborne particles like a surgical or N95 mask would.
“I haven’t read anything from the CDC that says a hair net over your face will do much good,” said Caraway.
…If employees like Kaleb were to quit, they would be ineligible for unemployment. Advocates are hearing from visa-holders who fret that even if they were to apply for unemployment, they might be considered “public charges” which could render them ineligible for permanent residency under a new rule enacted by the Trump administration last year. …The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act excludes anyone living in a mixed-status household with an undocumented family member.
…Mayor TenHaken formally requested that Governor Noem issue a shelter-in-place order for Sioux Falls’ surrounding counties as well as an isolation centre. She denied both requests. Despite the steep increase in cases, Noem also continued to decline to issue a shelter-in-place order in South Dakota, specifically saying that such an order would not have prevented the Smithfield outbreak.