Smithfield Foods began distributing masks to employees of its Milan pork processing plant on Thursday, after the Missourian reported workers did not have adequate personal protective equipment.

A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods, which owns the Farmland Foods plant in Milan, said that masks are now being provided at all of the company’s facilities.

Also Thursday, Gov. Mike Parson said that workers at such plants should have access to masks and that he wanted to be informed of any cases where that’s not occurring.

Two workers at the Milan plant informed Axel Fuentes, executive director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance, that masks and face shields were being distributed in the plant. It was unclear how many employees received them and in which parts of the plant they were distributed, Fuentes said.

During his Thursday news conference, Parson was asked whether workers at meatpacking plants should be provided masks. The governor said he was unaware of any specific incidents of workers without masks, but that they should be provided.

“I would definitely be encouraging the employers to make sure they have that availability, if it’s there, to make sure their employees can have (masks),” Parson said. He added that if that’s not happening, “and people are forced to do that and they don’t want to, then somebody ought to let us know and let us take a look at that.”

Smithfield announced the closure of its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant Sunday. At the time, nearly 300 of its employees had contracted coronavirus. As of Thursday, 598 employees and 135 of their close contacts had tested positive, according to the Rapid City Journal.

The company also closed two more of its plants Wednesday: one in Martin City, Missouri, and another in Cudahy, Wisconsin. Those facilities depend on fresh products from Sioux City, and the plant in Martin City won’t resume operations until the Sioux Falls location is reopened, according to a news release.

On March 29, 70 employees of the Milan pork processing plant signed a letter to management alleging unsafe working conditions, including a lack of distance between workers; the high speed of the line; a lack of masks and other personal protection equipment; workers assigned negative “points” for missing work because of coronavirus symptoms; and unavoidable contact between employees in the hallways.

The workers asked that the plant shut down temporarily, or if not, that stronger protections and benefits for workers be implemented during the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Smithfield announced bonuses would be provided to those who miss work for coronavirus exposure or diagnosis.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, tweeted Thursday that he is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide immediate assistance to Missouri pork producers following the shutdown of the Martin City Smithfield plant.

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • State government reporter, spring 2020. I am a senior studying investigative journalism and international studies. You can reach me at mgmcvan@mail.missouri.edu.

  • Mark Horvit is the state government editor. Call me at 817-726-1621 with story ideas, tips or complaints.

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