When UFCW Local 304A member Achut Deng started her job at Smithfield in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she was happy to find work that would allow her to build a better life for her three boys than the one she’d had growing up in refugee camps in Africa. Work at the plant is hard, but pays well and offers benefits that have allowed her to support not only herself and her children, but her family back home in Sudan. Every day, she goes to work and takes pride in helping make sure the bacon, ham, hot dogs, and other pork processed at the facility are safe and ready to feed families around the world. But when the coronavirus hit, Deng unexpectedly found herself at the center of the pandemic. Caitlin Dickerson of The New York Times spoke with Deng about her story.
When Deng was a child, there was a terrorist attack on her home in south Sudan. As an orphan, she fled the country and grew up in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. She often went days without any food or fresh water, and many of her friends died. She didn’t know if she was ever going to leave, and learned to take life one day at a time. “I would say it was just surviving because you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, you know?” said Deng.
In 2000, Deng was chosen for a program that relocated Sudanese orphans to the United States. When she got the news she would be leaving for America, she was so happy couldn’t sleep. She moved to Kansas City and started a new chapter in her life. She graduated high school, then went on to community college. After school, she started waitressing before working private security in her early 20s.
She ended up moving to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for the same reason many young people move- to pursue a relationship. “I always tell people I moved to Sioux Falls for a pretty stupid reason,” she laughs. “I was thinking I would find a man. So that was pretty much the reason right there. I moved in with my younger son’s father, then we broke up. “
With so many people dependent on her as breadwinner, Deng had told her ex she would need a job as soon as she moved out, and he told her about the job at Smithfield. Work there was hard, but paid well. “A lot of people came to Sioux Falls because of Smithfield and what it was offering people. I know a lot of Sudanese families came here because of Smithfield.”
Deng put in her application and started right away as a Whizard knife operator trimming the fat from the loin as it zooms past. More than 10,000 pigs are processed there a day, and production at her plant alone accounts for 4-5% of all pork that is processed in the United States.
“When I started? Hard work. Hard work is what I thought of it, but you’re not really thinking of how hard it is, you are thinking of money and everything. Once you get the paycheck, you are able to pay for the apartment. You are able to put food on the table. These are the things that I was thinking.”
“Once you start doing something for the first time, something that you’ve never done, your muscles are going to reject it. Your body is going to reject it. So I was always sore.”
Deng has held a number of jobs in the plant over the years. She became a shift lead and works about 11-12 hours days six days a week. With the overtime and her higher pay, she was even able to take her children to Disney World last year.
“My boys, all three of them, it means I can give them what I never had. Which is a better life at a young age. When I went there, I cried, but it was tears of happiness. I am American by papers. I can bring my kids here. And that was something I did. I was so proud of myself. “
Deng’s also uses her salary to support five family members who are still in Africa. “So this job, it allows me to take care of everybody else, not just my boys. So that’s why I pick up overtime, regardless of me being tired. Every morning when I go to work, I put everything that the company offered me in order to go to work this food that I’m making doesn’t have anything that can go and harm someone. Because this food is going to families. It’s going to children. It’s going to mothers. It’s going to fathers. Uncles. Aunts. Everyone around the world. Working at the meat factory, I’m making food for people around the world. I think of that every day. “
When she and her coworkers first heard about COVID-19, thought it was just something that was going to stay in China. Then as the virus spread to the United States, it was difficult to tell how big of a threat it would be. “Most of us as immigrants and refugees, it’s like, well, maybe people are just being extra about it, you know? Maybe it’s not that bad. For me personally, I’ve been through so much. If this is just like a virus, you’re talking to someone who had malaria, you know? I survived that. So it was like, if it’s going to be like malaria, I can go through it. It’s just going to be like any other thing that I’ve been through. “
But then things changed. Cleaning was stepped up in the plant, but with 150-160 people on each shift and many of them working side by side, Deng and her coworkers started to grow nervous.
Then on Saturday, March 28th, her supervisor pulled her aside and asked if she had any fever or cough. One of the machine operators she had worked with that morning had tested positive, and Deng was sent home to quarantine for two weeks. “I didn’t say it out loud, but I’m thinking, ‘they are being silly.’”
“Monday night I went to bed feeling ok. I woke up about 2am with this sharp pain in my body that just feels like someone has stabbed me. So I went to the bathroom and said, maybe if I take a shower, it will be better. But when the water hit my body, it felt like a bunch of rocks were being thrown at my body.”
Her skin hurt, and by Thursday night her body was so exhausted, even walking was difficult and it felt like something heavy was sitting on her chest. The fear kicked in as she started having trouble breathing, and she refused to fall sleep because she was afraid of not waking up. The experiences from her childhood flooded back, along with the fear that her children would face the same ordeals she went through being an orphan and not having parents to support them. “If I die, my kids will go through the same thing I’ve been through. The loneliness. I’m thinking, I bring these kids to this world. I’ve been through everything I’ve been through and I never had a chance to tell them. They don’t know their mom. They don’t know what their mom went through. All they know is their mom is a work-a-holic, “she would do anything to give us a better life,” that’s all they know. It’s not a perfect world. I make it perfect for them. But if I die, this world is not perfect anymore.”
As more workers got sick, the situation in Sioux Falls started to get nation attention. The number of positive cases kept rising up to more than 800 workers, and the governor called on head of Smithfield to stop production. On April 12th, Smithfield announced indefinite closure, while more and more plants around the country found themselves facing similarly dire circumstances.
An estimated 22 meatpacking plants have closed – including union and non-union plants – at some point in the past two months. These closures have resulted in over 35,000 workers impacted and a 25 percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 10 percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
Because of the importance of these workers to our national food supply, President Trump issued an executive order compelling these plants to stay open. But UFCW International President Marc Perrone called on the White House not to treat these workers as sacrificial lambs. “To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected,” said Perrone. “The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak”
The UFCW is urging the Administration to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected. Additionally, to protect the food supply and ensure these safety standards for workers are enforced, these plants must be constantly monitored by federal inspectors and workers must have access to representation to ensure their rights are not violated.
On Monday, the Sioux Falls plant began to partially reopen with about 250 employees. Deng is still recovering, but cannot afford to stay home for a long time. “My focus is to try to take care of myself so that when the company opens back up, then I’m ready to go. So that’s where my focus is.”
“Thank you very much for at least giving me the voice. A lot of people don’t understand, but living in the refugee camp, I don’t take anything for granted. Because of what I’ve been through and because of what I see happening to other kids that did not make it. But I am pretty sure they are looking over me and watching over me and I’m going to make them proud. “