Newsy Exclusive: Smithfield Workers React To Order Keeping Plants Open

Employees of the Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, NC, say they are scared and angry about Pres. Trump's order compelling meat plants to stay open.
Posted at 4:55 PM, May 01, 2020

Employees at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel North Carolina are not happy.

"I think that Trump's choice to force food plants stay open is really belittling my life to nothing more than another piece of the production line," said one employee. 

"President Trump is going to say whatever he want to say because he's not the one exposing himself," said another worker.

"I feel that the president order is unjust, because with me going through the coronavirus right now...I don't feel safe," said a third employee.

These workers all spoke on condition of anonymity and asked for their voices to be altered for fear of losing their jobs. The Smithfield Tar Heel plant is the largest pork plant in the world. More than 4,000 people work there.

"I am now worth no more than the meat that comes down before I cut it. When I took this job twelve years ago, nobody told me that I had to put my life on the line in order to sign up," said one employee. 

Over the past week, Newsy has confirmed at least 56 positive cases of COVID-19 among workers at the plant. Employees have raised concerns about a lack of transparency about the spread of the virus at the plant. And President Trump’s executive ordercompelling meatpacking plants to remain open during the pandemic adds to their fear

One worker we talked with told us she tested negative for the virus. She said the president should order a mandatory one-week shutdown to get all of the employees tested and clean the plants. 

"My response to Trump is I feel like he should be ashamed of himself. He is putting out there as if one American's life is more important than the other. If he were for the American people, he should be for all of the Americans, not just some," she said. 

Newsy has spoken to 12 employees from across different departments who work at the Smithfield plant. 

Another employee, who tested positive last week and is home on quarantine, said a blanket order to open all plants isn’t the right approach. 

 “I think it needs to be assessed individually. Not every plant is in a hard-hit area, while some are in areas that are hot zones of COVID-19,” wrote the employee. 

When asked if he considered the Tar Heel plant a hot zone, he said “yes”.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is currently no evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 through food.

But this week, the CDC and OSHA releasedinterim guidance for meatpacking and processing facilities - including recommendations for cleaning, social distancing and providing protective gear -though these measures are voluntary only. Workers inside the Smithfield plant say some things have changed.

Workers posted photos from inside the plant on a Facebook group - one announces changes to work schedules for two areas of the plant. Employees say the change has reduced the amount of workers breaking for lunch at the same time.

Another photo sent to us shows a sign posted Tuesday announcing the plant’s cafes would be closing. But workers can still eat in the lunchroom.

Sign posted outside the lunchroom at Smithfield's pork plant in Tar Heel, NC.

Smithfield also made changes to the employee locker rooms. A photo from Monday shows only hand sanitizer stations in the locker room.  By Wednesday there were plexiglass dividers installed.

Inside the employee locker room at the Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, NC.

Even with these changes, workers we spoke with say they are still concerned that the company is concealing the number of employees who have tested positive.

"They should care about us employees enough to keep us informed. They should make it mandatory all employees get tested," said another employee.

Smithfield did not respond to Newsy's request for an interview or to the employees' allegations. In a press release, the company expressed supportfor President Trump's executive order and said they are “grateful to its employees and its union representatives, who are frontline responders, for their patriotism and willingness to step up in a selfless way to keep food on tables during this global pandemic.”

If you are a Smithfield employee interested in talking to Newsy about your current experience at the plant, you can do that here.