Local workers discuss importance of labor unions

Local News

Updated Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Smithfield Foods responded to a request for an interview on these concerns with a statement, which we’ve added at the end of this story.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Is Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls headed for another outbreak of COVID-19? A union representative says she’s worried because the company is taking fewer and fewer precautions.

Tina Gonzalez has concerns beyond the Janga match at this year’s Labor Day picnic. The union representative at Smithfiled Foods in Sioux Falls is worried about her fellow workers.

“Something that we find very disconcerning right now is that for a year and a half, we were called essential workers, but now they don’t seem to think it’s as much of a priority, even though we’re being hit with the Delta variant,” said UFCW Union Representative Tina Gonzalez.

Smithfield workers still have to wear a mask, but Gonzalez says many of the safety precautions put in place by state and federal officials after the the first outbreak, are now gone.

“They were having daily temperature checks when you walk in the door, they stopped doing that. They had people sanitizing every surface every hour, they got away from that too. To me, it’s just like they’re looking for another outbreak,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez says the vaccination rate at Smithfield is only 40-percent due in large part to the 80 different languages spoken at the plant.

“It makes sense for the company to continue to impliment these safety guidelines that they had before versus taking them away and saying well, if you didn’t get vaccinated, then you’re out of luck,” said Gonzalez.

“There’s not a labor shortage, there’s a wage shortage,” said South Dakota AFL-CIO president Kooper Caraway.

South Dakota AFL-CIO president Kooper Caraway says workers won’t risk getting COVID-19 for $13 an hour.

“The pandemic has shown that workers are reevaluating how they want to spend their lives, reevaluating what they’re ready to risk and most workers are not willing to risk their health, their safety, their lives, the lives of their lived ones for a wage that’s barely able to get by,” said Caraway.

Caraway says South Dakota is one of the few states where union membership is on the rise.

“It’s because you’re having a new generation enter the workforce and they’re committed to the principals of trade unionism,” said Caraway.

“It’s very important to remember that this is labor day and without labor unions, we would not be here today, that is what made labor day, labor day,” said Gonzalez.

Tiina Gonzalez says the United Food and Commercial Workers union has started an OSHA investigation to look into COVID-19 safety practices at Smithfield in Sioux Falls.

Statement from Smithfield Foods

Since the onset of the pandemic, we have taken aggressive actions to protect employee health and safety in the workplace so that we can continue to produce safe, affordable food for so many.

We have worked with teams of others, including healthcare experts and providers, to ensure our employees remain safe while in the workplace, including with personal protective equipment. All team members in production areas must wear face shields in addition to continuing to wear face masks, and barriers are being utilized where social distancing is not feasible. Our facility locations are subject to additional safety protocols, including providing free, on-site, on-demand testing for the virus.

Public health guidance has been clear: Vaccination is the most effective defense against the virus. We remain focused, at this time in our nation’s response to the pandemic, on ensuring that the safe, effective vaccines are widely distributed and available to each of our employees.

We have been actively working with partners to communicate this message, through signage, text messages, other electronic communications, peer-to-peer discussion, supervisory and team discussion, and with third parties. We have invested in on-site and third-party vaccine distribution capabilities. In Sioux Falls, we have held three on-site vaccine clinics since late March.

Most recently, in August, as part of a larger companywide initiative, we hosted a COVID-19 Vax Facts Event in Sioux Falls that engaged trusted third-party community partners, such as the City Health Director and doctors from Avera Health and Sanford Health, to discuss the risks of COVID-19 and its variants with our team members, and how the vaccines will safely and effectively protect them, their co-workers and loved ones. Translators from Lutheran Social Services were onsite to ensure accessibility in multiple languages. These discussions were immediately followed by an opportunity to be vaccinated. We also extended an invitation to our employees’ friends and family, as well as other community members, to receive educational materials and vaccinations at no cost.

Yet another on-site vaccination event is scheduled for later this week.

COVID-19 has impacted every corner of our nation, and every part of Sioux Falls. We have continued to see low relative incidence among our employee family even amid evolving community spread of the virus. We continue to work closely with health experts and agencies to mitigate the impacts of the virus on our employee family.

A safe workplace – and healthy employees – is how we can continue to carry out our critical duty of protecting our food supply and producing safe, affordable, and wholesome food for so many.

Keira Lombardo, Chief Administrative Officer

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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