We have implemented aggressive measures to protect our employee's health and safety while safeguarding America's food supply.
Our COVID-19 response has focused exclusively on two things—keeping employees as healthy and safe as possible and fulfilling our obligation to the American people to maintain the food supply.
Food and Agriculture Workers Are Heroes
Thousands of members of our Smithfield Family have stood on the frontlines as our company has fulfilled its responsibility to our team members and country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is the men and women who are part of our Smithfield Family and our industry that have answered the bell. They are heroes. Contrary to some media reports, they are not exploited or unaware of the risks. Our entire country owes them a debt of gratitude, and to suggest otherwise is patronizing and diminishes their heroism. Heroes, every last one.
Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have asked for and needed help. A broad coalition of experts and agencies should have been here with us developing solutions, implementing protections and, at the very least, supporting us. Support has been very difficult to find. Yet, we have soldiered on, following every available recommendation and fighting to stay ahead of the curve, guided by an abiding conviction we are doing the right thing.
Candidly, we are weary of critics in the media who are detached from the realities of this worldwide pandemic. Namely, that the world needs food, and somebody has to produce it.
Some critics have formed conclusions about our company without an attempt to speak with us or understand the industry that provides affordable meals to millions of Americans every day. This is disappointing. This is especially disheartening after what our industry and its brave frontline workers have been through over the past several months.
Certain reports are fraught with misinformation about our company and industry that appears to be strictly gleaned from media outlets that have made statements and inferences that grossly mischaracterize us, our values and response to COVID-19. These reports reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of our food supply chain, the agricultural sector and the role exports play in a healthy farm economy.
Others apply a partisan lens to our company. We have no interest in being a political pawn for either party. The Department of Homeland Security, through multiple administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, has always recognized food and agriculture as critical infrastructure. This was not a new designation by the current Administration. The Executive Order reaffirmed our obligation to continue providing food for the American people and supporting farmers, which is not a partisan issue. We are apolitical in our determination to fight through this crisis, and we wish representatives in Washington could unite on the need to feed Americans during a national emergency.
U.S. agriculture, including Smithfield Foods, is an exemplar of American ingenuity, hard work and success. Too often media reports perpetuate the narrative that bad meat companies force employees to work in deplorable conditions. Today’s processing facilities are nothing of the sort. Decades of labor reforms and worker protections have created a safer and better workplace. Today, our composite injury and illness rates continue to be significantly lower than the industry and are comparable, on average, with manufacturing as a whole.
Are the jobs hard? Yes. Production work is often physically demanding. Our employees work extremely hard. Do we tolerate abusive conditions or operate without regard for employee safety? Absolutely not.
Our Company is filled with people who care about human beings, embrace responsibility to others, and are trying to do the very best they can.
We will continue to stand tall and look ourselves in the mirror secure in the knowledge we have stepped up for the country in its time of need and have done everything possible to protect employee health and safety. It is what we said we would do at the outset of this crisis and it is precisely what we have done.
We remain committed to keeping food on tables across America: today, tomorrow and every day.
We have continued to run our processing plants, distribution centers, farms and feed mills for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Operating is not a question of profits; it is a question of necessity. We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country and support American farmers, now more than ever.
During this pandemic, our entire industry has been faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation’s food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our team members from risk. It is an awful choice; it is not one we wish on anyone. There is nothing we would like better than to keep employees at home like the rest of America.
But it is impossible to keep protein on tables across America if our nation’s meat plants are not running. Beyond the implications to our food supply, our entire agricultural community is in jeopardy. So, yes, we do have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not? This question should not be up for debate.
If profits were our motivation, why would the following be true?
Do these sound like the actions of a company that does not care about employee health and safety or is putting profits ahead of its team members?
All told, these measures will total in the hundreds of millions of dollars for our company in just four months. As highlighted above, we have paid over 23,000 employees to stay home at various points since the onset of the pandemic. Why are we doing all these things? Most assuredly not for profits. There are only two reasons: to keep employees as healthy and safe as possible and to fulfill our obligation to the American people to maintain the food supply. Here’s how:
It is no secret that social distancing is the biggest challenge we have faced as an industry. Most manufacturing plants are designed to maximize space and efficiency. The meat industry is no different. Despite this challenge, we have tirelessly searched for—and found—ways to incorporate social distancing, including reconfiguring workstations, staggering shifts, and limiting occupancy capacity in certain areas. All of our social distancing efforts meet or exceed the joint CDC and OSHA guidance.
In places where social distancing isn’t possible due to the unavoidable constraints of the existing buildings, we have—at substantial expense—constructed temporary or permanent spaces to spread out. If adding space isn’t feasible, we have protected our workers by installing thousands of physical barriers to help prevent the spread of the virus.
We continue to encourage employees to observe all hygiene and safety protocols with signage all over our processing facilities. We are screening employees for COVID-19 symptoms before they enter the building, and outfitting them with frocks, boots, masks, permanent face shields, hard hats and face/hair nets.
To say it is a challenge is an understatement. Nevertheless, we have adapted our facilities, as fast as possible, to mitigate the risk of virus transmission.
Politicians and non-industry commentators often demand that meat processing facilities “slow line speeds.” These demands fail to address the consequences of slowed line speeds. It’s actually quite simple: if you slow the line speed, fewer animals are processed; if fewer animals are processed, there is less food and a diminished demand for livestock; a diminished demand for livestock leads to devastating numbers of animals being euthanized and a destabilization of farm prices. In other words, slowing line speeds will force America’s farmers to bury desperately needed food in the ground, creating food insecurity and higher food prices for everyone including, most importantly, those who can least afford it. These are not scare tactics; they are inescapable realities.
Managing COVID-19 Cases
To effectively manage COVID-19 cases in our operations, we have instituted a series of stringent and detailed protocols that follow or exceed the joint CDC and OSHA guidance. Employees who test positive for COVID-19 are required to quarantine until they meet the CDC’s required return to work criteria and must identify all coworkers with whom they have had close contact (as defined by the CDC). Those close contacts are notified of their exposure as soon as possible and subjected to appropriate protocols. Employees are not penalized for missing work due to COVID-19—they receive full pay, including bonuses—and their work areas are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.
Pay During Absences and Responsibility Bonuses
We have absolutely no motivation—in fact, we are disincentivized—to have sick team members reporting to work. Our constant message to our employees, in multiple languages, is “do not report to work if you are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. You will be paid.” To be clear, we are paying employees, including any and all bonuses, when they are absent from work due to COVID-19.
Our nation’s food workers are fighting COVID-19 by embracing their responsibility to safeguard America’s food supply during these unprecedented times. As a company and a nation, we should reward those who accept responsibility. Throughout the pandemic, we dedicated $120 million to providing Responsibility Bonuses to our production and distribution center team members.
We provide free, on-demand COVID-19 testing to all employees at our more than 40 U.S. facilities. The COVID-19 testing is conducted by onsite nurses and allows employees, including those who are asymptomatic, to access a test at any time, as often as they would like. Employees can also continue to access free COVID-19 testing via their individual healthcare providers.
Employees who test positive for COVID-19 are eligible for COVID-19 quarantine pay and are taken through applicable safety protocols. They are asked to identify close contacts and those close contacts are notified of their potential exposure, tested, and instructed to quarantine until a negative result is received. Positive employees may not enter our facilities until they meet the CDC’s return to work criteria.
Reporting and Illness and Mortality Rates
Throughout the pandemic, we have partnered with our local and state health departments to help ensure COVID-19 cases among our employees are completely and accurately reflected at all levels of reporting. This collaborative approach ensures that the data is correctly and transparently disclosed. COVID-19 data—including active case count—is also available to our employees by contacting their local HR representative or their COVID-19 workplace coordinator.
Employees should never be reduced to numbers; even one loss scars our hearts. The number of our employees lost to this global pandemic is measured in the low hundredths of one percent of our total workforce. Said differently, you have to go four decimal places to the right of zero before a number appears. Based on publicly available data, the U.S. death rate from COVID-19 is significantly higher than that within our company. But in our hearts, it remains an incalculable loss.
Our mortality rates are also lower than that of other essential critical infrastructure workers like those in law enforcement, for example. Nevertheless, we are deeply saddened by the passing of even one employee, as well as the more than 200,000 Americans who have succumbed to COVID-19. As we fight COVID-19 together with the rest of our industry and country, we have implemented aggressive measures to protect our team members from the virus in the workplace.
These statistics are noteworthy because, unlike much of America who has sheltered at home, our team members have continued to report to work. We wonder why, based on these statistics, there has been so much focus on our essential industry, which is feeding people during the pandemic.