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Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Alleging Missouri Meatpacking Plant Exposes Workers To Coronavirus

Employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. The plant has had an outbreak of coronavirus cases according to Gov. Kristi Noem.
Stephen Groves
Employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Ruling: OSHA is better suited to determine if the Smithfield plant is complying with guidance to protect workers from the virus.

A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed on behalf of workers at the Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Milan, Missouri, about 125 miles northeast of Kansas City.

In a 24-page order Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Greg Kays declined to hear the case, which alleged that working conditions at the plant have left its workers dangerously exposed to the coronavirus. He ruled it's a matter for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to consider.

The suit, which was filed nearly two weeks ago by a worker at the plant and a small nonprofit group that advocates for plant workers, alleged that Smithfield Foods had not taken adequate steps to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

Saying he gave more weight to the declarations of Smithfield than those of the plaintiffs, Kays found that the plant was following the joint guidance issued on April 29 by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidance says that where “feasible,” meat processing plants should stagger shifts and breaks, require workers to stay six feet apart, erect physical barriers, place hand-washing stations in multiple locations and allow workers to take breaks in different areas to ensure social distancing.

In dismissing the lawsuit, Kays said OSHA was in a better position to determine whether the plant was complying with the guidance. And, he said, deferring to the agency would “ensure uniform national enforcement” of the guidance.

Kays also said he would not have granted the relief requested by the plaintiffs because they had not demonstrated “irreparable harm.” The plaintiffs wanted Kays to issue an injunction to force Smithfield to provide workers with masks, ensure social distancing and take other measures to protect their safety.

“The Court is not unsympathetic to the threat that COVID-19 presents to the plant’s workers,” Kays wrote, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus. “But in conducting its analysis, the Court must determine whether Plaintiffs will suffer an actual, imminent harm if the injunction is denied. This is not the same as analyzing whether employees risk exposure if they continue to work, and, unfortunately, no one can guarantee health for essential workers — or even the general public — in the middle of this global pandemic.”

Kays went on to say that Smithfield had taken “significant measures to protect its workers “and the fact that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the plant” did not allow him to conclude that the spread of the disease was inevitable or that Smithfield would be unable to contain it if it occurs.

David Muraskin, a lawyer with Public Justice Food Project, one of the firms that represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement that while he was disappointed with the ruling, the lawsuit forced Smithfield to take the measures it did.

“While we disagree that Smithfield has implemented sufficient changes to address workers’ concerns and protect their safety, any changes that have been implemented are the result of the courageous workers who came forward to demand better from the company,” Muraskin said. “Their unprecedented stand for workplace safety has resonated across the entire meat packing industry. Smithfield, and other companies across the country, are now on notice that the entire nation is watching their actions and insisting on fair treatment for their employees.”

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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