Smithfield tries to repair its reputation after outbreak
Smithfield Foods, Inc. officials don’t like the reputation the company gained during the past year.
National media attention shifted to the meatpacking industry in April 2020 during the early stages of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — and set a magnifying glass on the meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, which quickly became one of the largest outbreaks in the country.
At least 1,294 employees contracting the coronavirus and four employees died, according to a report from OSHA.
Employees saw a $500 “responsibility bonus” advertised as a thank you as only a bribe to a vulnerable population of minorities, refugees and immigrants to risk their lives.
A weeks-long lag in shutting down the plant until hundreds of employees contracted the virus was interpreted as a disregard for worker safety, even when the company was losing thousands of dollars a day.
Protesters staged outside the Sioux Falls plant. Workers spoke out against the company to local and national media outlets. The president of the United States even weighed in on the matter.
A year later, they’re trying to change the narrative.
Tolcha Mesele, newly hired senior manager of community development, is the ambassador between Smithfield Foods and the city Sioux Falls.
His priority isn’t just repairing the company’s reputation, but the company’s relationships first.
Changing Smithfield from the inside out
Mesele’s parents were embarrassed for him when he started working at Smithfield Foods.
He was a recent college graduate with a degree in political science from Grinnell College in Iowa. He was supposed to be changing the world, not making bologna.
The meatpacking plant smells, it’s difficult work and it’s a job most people don’t want. Instead, refugees and immigrants with little English skills and limited employment options fill that role.
Workers have been ashamed to say they work there for years, Mesele said. But he’s planning to change that.
The Washington High School graduate only intended to stay at Smithfield for a few months before finding a job in his major. But he liked the people and the work.
Now he’s stayed for more than a decade.
He jumped into leadership roles quickly, and he felt like he had a direct impact on the company. He eventually climbed the ladder to become a warehouse superintendent, leading a department of 55 people.
“I knew I could do more being inside the organization,” Mesele said. “Whenever someone wants change or things to improve, I feel like this is the way I can do it best.”
In September 2020, he was promoted to senior manager for community development, a role not started until 2019.
“We’ve been around for a significant amount of time. There have been some rumors every year that we’re going to leave, but every year we invest tens of millions of dollars and employ thousands of employees,” Mesele said. “We’re invested in this community, and we’re staying here.”
Mesele plays a vital role in representing Smithfield among the Sioux Falls community and workers inside the plant, as well as how Smithfield contributes to education, workforce development and inclusion in the region. He has several initiatives planned to address such issues, of which many have yet to be officially announced.
Instead of only implementing initiatives he thinks are needed though, he plans to listen to what the community says is needed and what Smithfield workers think are needed.
That response is something that’s been missing among Smithfield leadership, and a miscommunication that led to the outbreak last year, he said.
“Yes, it’s good to give good wages to employees, but there’s more to that. I want to see them be proud to work at Smithfield, not embarrassed. I want to see Smithfield in a positive light,” Mesele said. “People just want to know they’re being heard. If it’s something employees want, I’ll work my tail off to make it happen.”
Sioux Falls is ‘critically dependent’ on Smithfield
Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken didn’t know who to call when the Smithfield Foods outbreak erupted.
A year later, he has CEO Dennis Organ’s phone number in his contacts.
“When Smithfield became a Chinese-owned company, local connections loosened a bit and weren’t as tight as they used to be,” TenHaken said. “COVID came and the outbreak happened, and we didn’t have any good relationships with people at Smithfield to turn to.”
City and state leadership had to build those business relationships on the fly, TenHaken said, which “made things a little tense.”
“We were trying to craft policy and guide Smithfield on the right decisions to make when we, really, as the city were learning as we went as much as Smithfield was,” TenHaken said.
TenHaken realized near the end of March 2020, as cases kept increasing, that the city needed to step in and suggest the plant temporarily close down. It was “obvious the right PPE was not in place.”
He and Gov. Kristi Noem wrote a joint letter on April 11, 2020, asking the plant to close.
“It’s a very, very serious thing to ask one of your largest employers to close its operation, knowing the impact it would have on so many levels — not only on the food supply chain, but also the employees, their incomes or lack of income during the shutdown and what that would mean,” TenHaken said.
Smithfield is one of the city’s top five employers and a significant part of Sioux Falls’ “economic engine,” TenHaken said. Smithfield Foods not only employs more than 3,500 employees, but also pays their salaries, helping to send their workers’ children to school, pay for groceries, cover gas and more.
On top of that, their expansions are investments in the community and the company has a vital impact on the regional agricultural community. Smithfield donated $400,000 to The Link Community Triage Center as one of its latest community projects, and something Mesele was a staunch advocate for.
“It took COVID for us to remember how critically dependent we are on one another,” TenHaken said.
Mesele is reaching out to other organizations to mend Smithfield’s relationships with them, too. That list includes Feeding South Dakota, the Sioux Empire United Way and Lutheran Social Services.
Brandi Miller, at Sioux Empire United Way, would have understood if the charitable giving from Smithfield Foods dropped this year. There is a pandemic, after all.
But Smithfield workers donated more than $600,000 to the charity this year, a 5.5% increase during the last year.
While that’s money from Smithfield employees, a lot of credit goes to the company itself, Miller said.
“The Smithfield campaign is a large portion of our overall campaign, but it’s also a great example for us on what a strong employee campaign can look like, and that’s possible because of strong company support,” she said.
It’s the same for representatives with Lutheran Social Services and Feeding South Dakota, which has already received 20,000 pounds of food from Smithfield in 2021 — more than what was donated in 2018 and 2019.
Smithfield is a strong supporter of LSS programs such as English language classes and citizenship classes, recognizing how it benefits their employees in the long-term, said Rebecca Kiesow-Knudson, COO at LSS.
Mesele sits on the board for the Sioux Empire United Way and Lutheran Social Services.
The pandemic and COVID-19 outbreak wasn’t something that made the charity question its relationship with the company. Instead, they’ve looked to strengthen their relationship, Miller said.
“When you’re looking at a company that employs as many people as they do, those employees have either experienced need in their own lives or have family and friends in their circles that rely on some of our services,” Miller said.
Smithfield-worker relationships: ‘It’s difficult to hear from them how they felt ignored’
Mesele is a Kenyan refugee, and he identifies with the thousands of immigrants working at Smithfield Foods.
His family moved to the United States when he was a child. He remembers moving from Jacksonville, Florida to Sioux Falls because his parents heard it was a safer community to raise children. He remembers going through the Feeding South Dakota backpack program because, while both of his parents worked, it was still a necessity.
While organizations around Sioux Falls have given Smithfield the “benefit of the doubt,” the toughest relationships to repair have also been the most important: their employees.
“It’s been more difficult for me personally with immigrant populations,” Mesele said. “It’s difficult to hear from them how they felt ignored.”
The fact that refugees and immigrants were willing to speak up during the pandemic is a sign of just how mistreated and ignored they were, said Taneeza Islam, executive director of South Dakota Voices for Peace.
People in such communities don’t want to “cause any trouble.” They just want to live a stable life with a steady paycheck — no wars, no famine, no refugee camps.
“They didn’t want to complain or speak out or have the media spotlight anymore,” Islam said. “That’s concerning as an organization aiming to empower these communities. It shows how vulnerable they are, and figuring out how to bring their voices to the table is a big task.”
It’s especially confusing for workers and Islam when they see partnerships between Smithfield and the city of Sioux Falls — for example, a $400,000 donation to the Link.
“I’m aware how the city views an employer of thousands, and the city is focused on repairing that relationship,” Islam said. “I don’t know what the city is doing for employees at Smithfield, but they’re doing a lot for their employer.”
But refugees and immigrants are starting to have a seat at the table.
TenHaken and Mesele are planning to create a Smithfield “Employee Engagement Council,” which would allow Smithfield workers to have direct access to city leaders to talk about housing, school transportation, other issues and opportunities.
Mesele is hoping to establish the newly renovated visitors building, after being used for on-site vaccinations, as a place for organizations and city workers to have informational presentations to workers as well. It’s direct access to reach Sioux Falls’ refugee and immigrant populations, and he’s planning to use a multilingual app for workers to keep updated on work and public safety information.
Despite the loss from the pandemic, Islam is confident there have been moves in the right direction to include to minority communities.
Mesele believes that, too.
“You don’t build relationships in crisis. You serve in a crisis,” Islam said. “You build relationships when there is no crisis so you can figure out how to serve them best in a crisis.”