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Smith Frozen Foods works to contain COVID-19 outbreak

  • 3 min to read
Smith Frozen Foods

Smith Frozen Foods in Weston, Oregon

Smith Frozen Foods in Weston has been put on Oregon’s COVID-19 outbreak list for worksites.

While officials from the frozen vegetable processing and packagin company said prevention measures have been stringent, union officials say the plant’s administration is putting profit over employees.

An investigation by state health officials was triggered July 24, after Smith reached a statewide threshold for companies with 30 or more employees and five or more positive coronavirus tests.

Smith has about 325 employees, split into three work shifts. The plant operates around the clock.

Oregon Health Authority reported Wednesday there are 23 positive cases associated with the plant — 13 more than the July 29 count.

That number can include family members, according to the state’s metrics.

Correctional facilities, food packing and agricultural worksites highlight the challenge of controlling COVID-19 in settings where people must work and/or live in proximity, state health experts said, noting people of color are more often represented in farm and correctional settings.

More than 80% of the 150 or so union members at Smith are Latino and are afraid of being at work right now, said union representative Jesus Alvarez.

At the same time, Smith workers have also expressed to him their fear of losing their jobs or income loss for calling out sick, Alvarez said.

“I tell them to stay home and get checked — ‘Your health should come first.’”

Alvarez works for Pasco-based Teamsters Local 839, which represents Smith employees.

He said he has numerous concerns about COVID-19 protocols at the Weston plant, including what he believes are inadequate cleaning practices and improperly-done employee temperature checks.

As well, employees are working too closely together and don’t have access to hand sanitizer when the plant is out of the product, according to Alvarez.

He has filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and local health departments, Alvarez said, and wants Smith to temporarily close for a professional cleaning of the building.

That’s what happens at other big processing plants, he added.

In a July 24 letter to employees, provided to the Union-Bulletin by Alvarez, Smith officials told employees the company knew of just one person confirmed with the virus and that other employees had self-reported their statuses.

“We do not believe that employees became infected or transmitted the virus here, more likely is that employees caught the virus while having contact outside of work or carpooling,” the letter said.

Officials reminded employees Smith is considered an essential business and that other food processing plants have had “horrendous COVID outbreaks while we have not.”

Mike Lesko, Smith’s human resources manager, said Local 839 officials are being petty and wanting credit for actions Smith had long had in place.

Alvarez’s allegations are “totally unfounded,” Lesko said.

The plant was well-positioned for all the safety measures required by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lesko and company President Gary Crowder said this week.

“We were ahead of the curve as an industry,” Lesko said, pointing out that food plants have long been required to have strict sanitation standards.

As a processing plant, Smith must do daily pathogen testing on the corn, peas, lima beans and carrots that go on to markets, a task that would highlight any sanitation issues. The plant also performs regular environmental testing, and is audited on results, Lesko and Crowder pointed out.

Even so, upon the advent of the pandemic, Smith increased hand sanitation stations by 40%, staggered starting times for lunch and work breaks and rearranged those rooms to meet social distancing rules, he said.

Cleaning schedules are ramped up, and employees get their temperature taken and answer daily health questions.

Masks are required, and where people cannot stay 6 feet apart, employees are also mandated to wear face shields.

When the company’s first employee with a confirmed case of coronavirus was identified, not only did the company use a disinfectant foaming process everywhere, it purchased air purifiers for all offices, break areas and eating areas inside the plant, the two men said.

However, when Smith employees leave, that’s when company safety controls stop, Crowder said.

“We are all spending thousands of dollars to protect employees,” he said, referring to other heads of other companies he’s been speaking with about worker safety.

“When they leave here we have no control over what they do when they are off work.”

Crowder and Lesko said they are sure carpooling is part of the virus transmission issue at Smith, and that household exposure is affecting who is staying away from work.

Mitigating exposure to COVID-19 boils down to personal choice and responsibility, Crowder added.

“We know people gather … With so many people working at a facility, that really is the easiest place to track it.”

The administrators said they disagree with the union’s assertion Smith employees fear calling out sick.

“I don’t think anyone is afraid to call in, Lesko said, noting the company has “way more” people gone because of exposure to COVID-19.

On Thursday, the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health employees held a health fair at Smith, to make sure employees have all the available information and confirm wellness checks, Crowder said.

“They offered that at Tyson and we said ‘Our doors are open.’”

The company also reached out to Umatilla County Public Health for virus-mitigation advice.

Lesko has found a lack of clarity and communication between public health agencies and between healthcare providers adds an unnecessary layer of information confusion.

“Some are using 14 days, some 10 days, some 72 hours or 24 hours,” he said, noting the plant has many employees absent who can likely safely come back to work.

Crowder and Lesko said they have welcomed OSHA officials into the plant.

“We asked them for their help.”

Alvarez, however, said the company should offer employees hazard pay and change its attitude about the situation.

“I am a little frustrated. I wish Smith was a little more union-friendly, a little more employee-friendly.

“The lack of communication is horrendous.”

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.