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A representative with Smithfield Foods responded to questions from the Journal-Times via email last Friday, providing answers about safety precautions in their Grayson facility.

and health benefits being offered to employees. But despite the company's claims, some employees have stated that conditions in the plant aren't as good as the picture leadership paints.

Keira Lombardo, Executive V.P. Corporate Affairs and Compliance, sent the email response to questions submitted by the Journal-Times via voicemail, text, and email over a two week period. Lombardo stated in her email that the safety precautions outlined on the Smithfield website were, “in place across our entire footprint, which includes more than 40 facilities and 40,000 employees, including those in Grayson.”

Lombardo added that she has, “personally visited the Grayson plant a number of times,” and could confirm the safety measures were in place. Those measures, she said, included plexiglass barriers and other physical barriers, which “have been installed on the production floor and in break areas.”

The Journal-Times also asked Lombardo if the thermal scanning technology mentioned in the company's press releases were being employed in Grayson, and how that technology was being utilized if so. Lombardo confirmed that the technology was present at the Grayson facility, and explained that it was used to scan each employee entering the facility.

“Thermal scanning identifies employees with elevated temperatures prior to entering our facilities,” she wrote.

Any employee with an elevated temperature, which could indicate COVID-19 infection, are not supposed to be allowed in to work. If it turns out an employee with a temperature is infected with COVID-19, she explained, they would be allowed to utilize short term disability benefits during their treatment and quarantine period.

“We have relaxed attendance policies by eliminating any punitive effect for missing work due to illness related to COVID-19,” she further explained in response to questions about the “expanded employee health benefits” noted on the company website.

In addition to, “waiving the waiting period for Short Term Disability benefits for those diagnosed with COVID19,” and relaxing their attendance policies, she added, the company is also, “waiving the co-pay, co-insurance and deductible for COVID-19 testing as well as eliminating pre-approval or preauthorization steps.”

She said the company is also, “waiving co-pays for the use of telemedicine,” and, “allowing early refill of maintenance medication,” for those who might want to limit their time in pharmacies or doctor's offices during the crisis.

She said that the company is also providing face masks for all employees, but that they are not utilizing N95 filters in those masks.

“While face masks are being utilized universally at Smithfield, we are not providing medical grade PPE, including N95 masks, which are being reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders,” she wrote. “I am sure you can appreciate how important this is to our nation’s doctors, nurses and others who are truly on the front lines battling COVID-19.” But while Lombardo says Smithfield is doing everything in their power to combat the virus, some employees – speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of their jobs – says that the situation on the ground inside the plant is not ideal.

One employee complaint was about the lack of hazard pay. She further stated that while employees are being asked to work seven days a week to make up for the loss of productivity at other plants the $500 a month “responsibility bonus” they are being offered is revoked if the employees arrive to their shift even one mine late or have to leave early for a doctor's appointment, child care, or any other reason.

“If you're late or leave early, you're not getting it,” she said.

The employee also criticized the safety gear they were issued.

“They're giving us equipment that looks like the maintenance man made it,” she said.

She said while some of the face shields, which attach to the hard hats employees are required to wear, are attached with elastic, others are tied on. The one provided for her is a tie-on type, she said, and it doesn't stay on her helmet as well as the elastic band models provided to other employees.

“Mine keeps falling off,” she said.

She also criticized the masks being issued. While she conceded that employees are free to bring in their own face masks if they like, she said the company has provided each employee with only one cloth face mask each, and the company is not laundering or disinfecting those masks for them, but leaving that responsibility up to each individual employee.

Regarding the thermal imaging, while the employee said it is in place, she said that management is not using it properly or sending employees with fevers home.

“I know someone that went through it, and they were sick (with a fever),” she said.

While she admitted that neither that employee, or any other employees she knew of, have tested positive for COVID-19, she refuted claims that the company is waiving the co-pay and deductible for out-of-pocket COVID-19 testing. She said the company is “not paying for all employees to be tested,” and that she knew a few employees who have taken the test, paying for it themselves, and have not been reimbursed for that cost.

In Kentucky, though, Governor Andy Beshear waived the cost of COVID-19 testing and ordered all insurers to cover the full cost of the testing via executive order in early March.

Lombardo also refuted the claims of the anonymous employee.

“Regarding the employee complaint you shared, I will not comment on hearsay other than to say that what you describe is completely and totally contrary to our COVID19 processes and protocols,” Lombardo said.

She said she welcomed any employees with questions or worries about the way the company is handling the pandemic to, “contact me directly to discuss any concerns.”

“We have absolutely no motivation – in fact, we are disincentivized – to have sick team members reporting to work,” Lombardo wrote. “We are constantly telling employees, in multiple languages, verbally, in print and via an employee communication app, 'Do not report to work if you are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. You will be paid.' This includes any and all bonuses.”

She said it's very important to keep everyone – from floor employees to the farmers involved in Smithfield's supply chain – healthy in order to do their part in meeting America's food needs.

“Our more than 40,000 U.S. team members, thousands of American family farmers and our many other supply chain partners are a crucial part of our nation’s response to COVID-19,” Lombardo said.

She also invited, “the readers of the Grayson Journal-Enquirer, to please join us in our rally for our nation’s food workers who are fighting COVID-19 by ensuring our food supply during these unprecedented times by posting a social media message using the hashtag #ThankAFood-Worker.”

“I know it would mean a lot to our team members in Grayson,” Lombardo said.

Contact the writer at jwells@journaltimes.com.

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