One Meat Plant, One Thousand Infections: Revisiting Achut Deng
The Daily

[00:00:00.08]
Hi, I'm Theo Balcomb. I'm one of the people who make the daily. You might know my name from the credits. Listeners have written us and said, hey, I really want to support you. I think you're working all the time. And it really means a lot to me. Can I send you pizza? The best thing to do, though, is to just become a subscriber to The New York Times. If you've already done that, thank you.

[00:00:21.09]
If you haven't yet subscribed, you can do that at NY Times dot com slash subscribe.

[00:00:30.07]
Hey, it's Michael. This week we're revisiting people we met in the early weeks of the pandemic. Listening back and hearing what's happened to them since our original conversation today. A shoot day, a pork factory worker in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It's Wednesday, July 15th. I came to America, I think, and I can never go through hell. But what if this come to me?

[00:01:09.03]
This virus is very dangerous. They caught everybody off guard, including myself.

[00:01:23.04]
From The New York Times, unlikeable borrow. This is The Daily. Today, one of the largest outbreaks of the corona virus in the U.S. has been inside a meat processing plant in South Dakota. My colleague Caitlin Dickerson speaks with one of its workers. It's Monday, May 4th. As an immigration reporter, as soon as I hear that Cauvin, 19, is starting to spread across the country, I started thinking about who are the most vulnerable people in this pandemic.

[00:02:15.06]
And right away, meat and poultry plants come to mind because these facilities tend to be staffed by immigrants. There's gonna be a lot of pressure on workers to show up for work because they've been deemed essential by the federal government and because of the nature of the work, the facilities are massive and often you have thousands of people working at a single time and they literally stand shoulder to shoulder. They're touching all the time.

[00:02:42.08]
Come on. Are you there?

[00:02:45.02]
Oh, shoot. You just dropped out. Something happen?

[00:02:47.06]
So I'm put in touch with a woman named Achu. Dang Hoof. We did it. Yes, we did.

[00:02:56.06]
Just to start out a shoot. Can you just kind of introduce yourself and tell us what work you do?

[00:03:03.05]
So my name is that shoot. Dang, I work with Smithfield. We produce pork.

[00:03:09.04]
A shoot is a shift lead at the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

[00:03:13.09]
And I am the lead person for one department. A floor conversion.

[00:03:20.02]
She works in the conversion department. Deboning and processing all different kinds of pork. She's thirty five and she's a single mom of three boys.

[00:03:29.07]
Give you. Give me a second. Okay. My son. Just come in. Give me a second. Who are trying to get their homework done while we talk. Sorry Hombach. You're back. You're back. Okay, so how did you come to work at Smithfield?

[00:03:44.04]
You wanted to go from South Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya and to America. Yeah. Okay. So, yes, I was born in South Sudan, but then when I was six years old, we had a terrorist attack in the village. She was born in Sudan and she became an orphan when she was six years old during the country's civil war. And we walked to Kenya. And I was in 1990, in 1991 still.

[00:04:15.04]
She grew up in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where life was really hard. They created the school, but pretty smart people go and sit under the tree because there was no building or classroom or anything like that in the beginning.

[00:04:31.00]
Her school was a shady spot beneath a large tree where children wrote their English lessons with sticks in the dirt. Yeah, it seemed like it was normal at the time because we have no any other choice.

[00:04:44.00]
She often went days without having food or fresh water. A lot of her friends died. She didn't know if she was ever going to leave. So she took life one day at a time. I would say it was just. Surviving because you don't know what would happen tomorrow, you know?

[00:05:03.07]
And then in the year 2000, her life changed completely.

[00:05:07.09]
I got the news that I was I'm going to get a second chance of life. I'm going to go to the United States.

[00:05:16.01]
She was chosen for a program that relocated Sudanese orphans. Oh, my God. It was a happy feeling for me. I cannot believe I didn't go to sleep. The next day I went to school. I. I told my friends.

[00:05:32.06]
Yeah. She moved to Kansas City, started a life in America.

[00:05:40.06]
She graduated high school and started community college. And then she starts working as a waitress and then in her late 20s doing private security. And then how do you get to Sioux Falls, South Dakota? You know, I always tell people I. I moved to Sioux Falls for a very stupid reason, thinking that I find a man. So that was pretty much a risk horizon right there. I mean, I moved in with my younger son, father.

[00:06:10.09]
Then we broke up. OK. And how did you hear about the Smithfield factory for the first time? He actually told me about it because before I moved here, I told him I cannot go a month without a job because a lot of people are relying on me and most importantly, my kids. So and that's when he saw me Oread. There is a company here, Smithsville.

[00:06:35.01]
And when you were hearing about it, what what were people saying?

[00:06:39.02]
There was good things. Your start wages with Smithfield was 12. Ninety five. That is a very good pay. They have health care. Health insurance. So a lot of people came to Sioux Falls because of Smithsville and what it was offering to people. I know a lot of Sudanese families came here because of Smithsville.

[00:07:05.00]
So when I went and put in my application right in there, they saw me OK. You start tomorrow. Wow. And I started as I was an IV operator. And for someone who's never heard of Smithfield or been to the plant, can you just walk through what exactly it is that you guys do there? So, Smithfield, we receive like hawks, slaughter them, cut them into pieces. What I mean by that, by cutting off the hams legs.

[00:07:39.02]
We make bacon, ham, even hotdogs, cheese. Our dogs. We have them. Those are the things we do. A Smithsville. So is the entire pig that come alive turn into so many things afterwards?

[00:07:57.01]
And what is a wizard?

[00:07:58.09]
It's a circle knife that goes into this electric thing and you turn it off and on.

[00:08:05.03]
And what is it used for?

[00:08:07.06]
They use was a knife to trim the fat from the loin until this pretty much all meat, just meat without fat. So picture a massive factory floor with giant chunks of pork zooming by on a conveyor belt and a tube. And the other Wizzard knife operators are responsible for shaving fat off of the meat as it zooms past them. How many pigs are processed there every day? Ten thousand or more pigs. That's huge.

[00:08:39.07]
Yeah, and they're responsible for four to five percent of all the pork that's produced in the United States.

[00:08:51.07]
So when you first started, what did you think of it? How did it go? What did I think of Smithsville? Hard work. Hard work is what I thought of it, but you're not really thinking of. How hard it is. You will thinking of money, you know, and everything that you know, once you get the paycheck you are able to pay for the apartment, you are able to put food on the table. These were the things that I was thinking and.

[00:09:26.03]
What was it like for you physically and then beginning starting out? Once you start doing something for the first time, something that you never done, your muscle is going to reject it. Your body is going to reject it. So I was always sore. I was always. My wrist was sore. My arm. You know, were numb. So after work, I would come home and put eyes light on my shoulder or my wrist and then take ibuprofen.

[00:09:55.04]
Then I did that every night. Wow. Until one day I went to first aid and I talked to the nurse and the nurse was very, very nice, outgoing. And she said, you know what, you'd let me give you this advice. You know, this job is a hard work. This is a very hard work. You've been doing this with an eye for for a year now. And your risk is hurting. Your arm hurt.

[00:10:18.07]
Your shoulder hurt. I would do one job for about a year. But after that sign, another job that way you have a rotation in your body. So she takes this advice and over the next couple years, she starts moving around the factory to different jobs. She eventually becomes a shift lead and she starts working a lot of overtime, usually eleven to twelve hours a day, six days a week. But it really pays off. And she starts to feel comfortable financially.

[00:10:48.04]
I get pay 1870 an hour. What is that higher hourly wage meant for your life?

[00:10:56.09]
My boys, my. All three of them. I can give them what I never have, which is a better life at a young age. Last year, I took them to Disney World. That is something that when I went there, I cried. But I was. It was the tears of happiness. I'll bring in my kids. I am American by papers. I bring my kids here. And that was something I did. I was so proud of myself.

[00:11:24.05]
Between the new salary she's making and the overtime that she's working, she's able to move into a bigger apartment with her sons. And she's also supporting five family members who are still living in Africa. So this job offer me to take care for everybody else, not just my boys, you know.

[00:11:44.07]
So you're basically supporting nine people on your salary from Smithfield?

[00:11:50.04]
Yes. Wow. So that's why I pick up over time, regardless of me being tired every morning when I go to work, I put everything that the company offered me in order to make sure there's food that I'm making, doesn't have anything that can go in her and harm someone. Because, you know, these these food are going to families, is going to children, has gone to mothers, is going to fathers, uncles, aunts, everyone around the world.

[00:12:24.03]
Work in the meat factory. I'm making food for people around the world. I think of that every day. It sounds like you take a lot of pride in your job. Yes, I do. Do you remember the first time you heard about the coronavirus?

[00:12:51.04]
Yeah, I would say it was sometime in January. February. We're just talking about is kind of like it's something that happened in China and is going to stay in China. Then come the beginning of March, it was Seattle. And then the next morning I went to work. And now everybody I work is talking about it. But it's still most of us as refugees, immigrants as like is probably, you know, people are maybe just being extra about it right now.

[00:13:22.08]
Maybe it's not that bad. Why do you think you reacted that way? For me personally, I'm like, OK, if if it become to a fact, I'm like, 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 I was like, OK, if it's 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.

[00:13:58.03]
But then on Saturday, March 21st, things start to change at Smithfield.

[00:14:04.09]
When I went to work that morning, I saw a lot of people with cleaning up the the handrails, doors, bathroom doors with wives. And I'm like, what's going on? And one of the people told me, this thing is serious. I chewed this thing is serious. But, you know, I'm done thinking now. OK. One hundred fifty to one hundred and sixty people in one shift. Are you sitting in the break room to where the tables are very small.

[00:14:39.05]
You have six people in one table. And then later that day, she gets an e-mail.

[00:14:50.09]
That time was when I receive an email, a video from the CEO's Smithsville CEO.

[00:14:58.02]
Hi, I'm Ken Sullivan, president and CEO, Smithfield Foods. I'd like to talk to you today about Cauvin 19 or Perone virus.

[00:15:06.01]
So I watched the video from the CEO about this virus is not coming from food, according to the FDA and CDC.

[00:15:14.02]
There's no evidence that Cauvin, 19, can be transmitted by food and America need food.

[00:15:20.07]
Every family need food. We don't want people to struggle from hunger, let alone a virus.

[00:15:28.09]
American families. We feed millions of people every day, every single day. It's a business with no shortcuts and no days off. Most of our team members work side by side on production lines in our facilities. We can't stay home. We can't telecommute. Food, after all, does not get made on the Internet.

[00:15:50.00]
So our company is not going to get shut down.

[00:15:54.08]
We're here. We're always here. We're a food company. And despite Cauvin 19, indeed, because of it, we're working around the clock to do what we do best and that's deliver good food responsibly.

[00:16:14.03]
How did it feel to you to have your job deemed essential in the middle of a pandemic when people all over the country are panicking? You know, your work is deemed. Fundamental to to keeping the country going. At one point I was negative about it, at one point I was like, wow, do that mean my life don't matter? And here I am putting my life at risk. Coming to work because people around the world need food. But I said, OK, I'm just going to have to stay positive.

[00:16:50.08]
And people if people need food and I'm able to do that for them, then I'm just gonna put my life to God to protect me and not get sick.

[00:17:00.08]
Did you also consider just staying home from work and not going in?

[00:17:06.02]
To be honest, I did not.

[00:17:11.07]
I was just thinking off. No, I need this job. I need to keep working so I can support my family and is thinking about it now as light and herds. It hurts that you didn't think about yourself. Yes. But you could use a snack right about now. How about a toasty grilled cheese sandwich? Just be warned, if you happen to achieve gooey, cheesy perfection, you may be inspired to upgrade your tiny, drab kitchen. Only you won't be able to do it alone in this moment of newfound passion.

[00:18:15.07]
The people of U.S. bank want to help. No matter what you're cooking up, they're dedicated to turning your new inspiration into your next pursuit. U.S. bank equal housing lender member, FDIC. By the end of March, hospitals across the country are being overrun by covered patients. Governors start shutting down businesses and ordering people to shelter in their homes. But in South Dakota, there are still only a few covered cases and a tuite is still going to work until Saturday, March 28.

[00:18:48.07]
Now, Saturday, my superintendent came up around, I would say, at about three o'clock and he said, OK, I wanted to have a meeting. They asked me if I have any fever, cough, any shortness of breath. And I say, no, I'm doing I'm doing good. And he said, one of the machine operator tested positive. I say, What? Wow. That person I work with her that morning for, like I would say, about fifteen minutes.

[00:19:19.08]
They said, OK, well, you got to go home because you had close contact with and I'm like, really? You got no other. I didn't say it out loud, but I'm thinking they're being silly. And that's when they told me you're going to be under quarantine for the next 14 days. But I'm still going to get paid for three hours. Is that enough for me? Is not enough for me as a person who do overtime.

[00:19:46.03]
Overtime is like five hundred extra. Five hundred dollars. That for me. They covered a lot of things. What do I do? I can't go and get another job. But at that time, I was told, as does two weeks. So I'm like, OK, two weeks. I know I'll be OK. It's still gonna drop me back one step backward, but I'll be OK. And then Monday night was when I got sick. Monday night, I went to bed feeling OK.

[00:20:30.07]
I woke up about two a.m. with this sharp pain on my body is just feel like someone's stabbed me. So, you know, I went to the bathroom and I said, OK, maybe if I take a shower, a cold shower is gonna be better. So I turned the water on and it just when the water hit my body, I feel like a bunch of rocks was getting thrown on my body. So I turned the water off. I took the towel to dry myself and my skin.

[00:21:08.02]
I just couldn't use the towel. It just my skin hurt. So, like, okay, I'm freaking out. And then Thursday night, my body at this point is so exhausted. Even walking is like I'm pushing myself. I just feel like something heavy set right on my chest. Now, the fear really kicked in because now I'm having problem breathing. I said, OK. It's gonna be better for me. I going gonna stay up. I don't want to sleep because if I go to sleep, chances are going to be I'm not going to wake up.

[00:21:56.07]
That's when I left my room. I came to the living room and just sat there because I said, OK. If I stay in my room and I die. I don't want my kids to find me dead in the room. What was that like for you emotionally, I mean, what's going through your mind? I went right back. To my childhood. To everything that I've been through in life. But they are my kids. If I die.

[00:22:34.07]
My kids will go through this and then I be through. The low Lindus. You know, not having anybody to check into to like a parent's. They can bring these kids to this world. I survived through everything that I went through. I said I haven't had a chance to tell them. They don't know that, mom. They don't know what their mob went through. All they know is that my mother's a workaholic. She would do anything to give us a better life.

[00:23:11.05]
That's all they know. It's not a perfect world, I'd make it perfect for them. But if I die, this world is not perfect and it more. It sounds like a horrible, horrible night. It was it was there was one of the worst night ever. So, well, it's cute, is at home sick with the coronavirus. The situation at Smithfield is evolving.

[00:23:48.03]
This Smithfield pork processing plant is now a coronavirus hotspot.

[00:23:52.09]
More and more of her colleagues are falling ill. How many other cases do you hear about among your colleagues?

[00:24:01.02]
Oh, a lot. A lot. A lot. I think within the South Sudanese community alone, I think we have like at least 40 people that I know. But in my department, I was told that it went up to 80 in one department. Eighty people. And how big is your department on a good day that people showed up? Is one hundred and fifty five.

[00:24:25.05]
The outbreak at that Sioux Falls plant is among the worst clusters of coronavirus in the country.

[00:24:31.01]
About 250 workers there tested positive for coronavirus. 350 workers tested positive for Kovik, 19. And as the days pass, it keeps getting worse. The number of cases skyrockets up to more than 400 Smithfield workers who are sick. And the governor calls on the head of the company to stop production.

[00:24:54.06]
One of the nation's largest food processors, Smithfield Foods, will close its processing plant in South Dakota for further cleaning.

[00:25:03.02]
So on April 12th, the president of Smithfield announces he's going to close the plant indefinitely. And all the workers are sent home.

[00:25:09.08]
This morning, there were fears the nation's food supply chain is at a breaking point after more than a dozen major meat processing plants have become covered, 19 hot spots.

[00:25:19.06]
Meanwhile, food processing plants across the country are getting hit hard with Cauvin. Other major companies like Tyson start raising the alarm that they're having trouble producing and delivering food to the nation's grocery stores because of the virus.

[00:25:31.09]
Meanwhile, President Trump announced an executive order to compel meat processing plants to remain open.

[00:25:37.04]
And last week, President Trump signed an executive order declaring meat and poultry plants as part of the nation's critical infrastructure as a way to pressure the plants to keep producing food.

[00:25:50.04]
In Sioux Falls, the plant is still closed. Smithfield says it will continue to pay workers for 40 hours a week until they go back to work. And it's speeding up plans to reopen the plant as quickly as possible. But that's also raised questions about whether it can do so safely.

[00:26:12.00]
How are you feeling now, physically? Physically, I feel, I feel I feel good. I'm still having a little bit of headache. But, you know, that's like almost an everyday thing when you are a mom and, you know, so I'm not freaking out overhead. But my favorite, this one is still at 100. And I have no idea why. I'm just trying to get it down to like nine denied at least before I called my doctor to go for a check in.

[00:26:42.07]
But I cannot afford to stay home for a long time. I would give myself a month. And if it goes after four weeks, no, it wouldn't be good for me at all.

[00:26:57.06]
It sounds like as soon as you start feeling better, your focus goes from your health back to your finances.

[00:27:04.05]
Yes, that is correct. Now, my focus is to try to take care of myself as possible to where when this company open back up, then I'm ready to go. So that's where my focus is. Shoot. Thank you so much for talking to us about your experience. You're welcome. Thank you very much. For at least giving me the the voice. A lot of people don't understand the level of the refugee camp. I don't take anything for granted because of what I've been through as lie.

[00:27:51.07]
And because of what I see happening to other kids that did not make it. I'm pretty sure they are looking over me. They are watching me and I'm going to make them proud. Shortly after we spoke with a chewed, the Smithfield plant reopened and she returned to work, the plant has introduced several new safety precautions, including personal protective equipment, Plexiglas barriers and onsite testing for the corona virus.

[00:28:43.04]
A federal investigation into the original conditions at the plant, which began in May, continues, but Smithfield has taken an aggressive approach to the inquiry. When the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sought health records related to the plant from South Dakota's governor, Smithfield sought to quash the requests in court. After hearing from dozens of daily listeners, a shoot has begun to see her experience in a new light and now recognizes the power of her voice.

[00:29:28.07]
She's thinking about writing a book in the hopes of inspiring women and young people with her life story.

[00:29:50.01]
Third, Love believes there is no substitute for comfort with one of a kind. Details like memory foam cups, no slip straps and breathable fabrics. Their bras and underwear focus on keeping you comfortable and supported in 80 sizes, including 1/2 cups. Go to third love dot com slash daily to find better bras and underwear and get 15 percent off your first purchase. That's third love dot com slash daily for 15 percent off. Here's what else you need to know today, in a major reversal, the Trump administration is walking back a policy that would have stripped international college students of their U.S. visas if their coursework was entirely online.

[00:30:36.06]
The plan had thrown the world of higher education into turmoil and prompted lawsuits from both colleges and states attorneys general. Now, under an agreement reached by the administration and colleges, international students can remain in the country even if all their classes are remote and. The White House is ordering that hospitals bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when reporting data about the corona virus. The administration said that the decision would streamline the reporting process, but experts fear it may allow the government to distort the data for political gain.

[00:31:23.09]
Rather than go to the CDC, which traditionally gathers data on treatments, supplies and hospital capacity, it will now go to the Department of Health and Human Services, which answers directly to the president.

[00:31:41.02]
Finally, we've fought a good fight in this race. We've taken that case to the people of Alabama and the people of Alabama have spoken. They want a new leader, a new fresh face. They go to Washington.

[00:31:55.06]
I think we're going to have Jeff Sessions, the first U.S. senator, to endorse Donald Trump for president and leader. His attorney general lost his bid for the Republican Senate nomination in Alabama after a race in which Trump campaigned against him. Sessions had infuriated Trump by recusing himself as attorney general from the Russia investigation, a move that eventually led to his dismissal. Sessions lost to a political newcomer, Tommy Tuberville, a former college football coach. That's it for the daily unlikeable bar.

[00:32:47.08]
See you tomorrow. Do you avoid tough problems and shy away from a debate? Do you think uncertainty limits potential? Neither do we at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. We believe in asking questions and questioning answers. With campuses in Chicago, London and Hong Kong, the booth MBA is for people who see challenges as opportunities and want the skills to make positive change in any markets anywhere in the world. Ready to find your community? Search Chicago Booth DOT 82 today to learn more.

One Meat Plant, One Thousand Infections: Revisiting Achut Deng
The Daily