The Smithfield meat-packing plant in Sioux Fails, South Dakota, has received increasing attention of late as a vector in the spread of Covid-19. The virus tore through the plant in March and April: more than eight hundred cases, out of 3,400 employees, in about four weeks. The numbers have continued to grow, though more slowly, since. This week, two months later, the AFL-CIO has reported that 1,200 workers are still absent from the plant for reasons of illness or quarantine.
The deaths of two elderly workers at the plant, Augustin Rodriguez (64) and Craig Franken (61) have made vivid the extent to which the pandemic is a work safety issue. Franken had worked at the company for forty years, Rodriguez for close to twenty.
Smithfield claims that it has generous leave programs in place supporting employees who need to stay out when necessary for their own health and the protection of their fellow employees. Perhaps those programs came rather late for Rodriguez. There are reports that he continued showing up for work after he was symptomatic with the disease, because … he needed the work.
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Although this does not mitigate the human costs described above: The disruptions at Smithfield and other plans caused by the pandemic have not caused as great a break in the food supply chain as was once feared. Grocery stores throughout the United States have continued to stock meats. Disruption did create a sharp rise in prices in May, but the new price level may not be lasting.