Sara Birhe, whose family arrived in Sioux Falls from Ethiopia in 2001, said her mother bought a four-bedroom house and sent her children to college on a single income from the
Kooper Caraway, president of the Sioux Falls chapter of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said the leaders began sounding alarm bells more than a month ago that the plant, because of its crowded conditions and lack of protective gear, could become a coronavirus hot spot.
“Management just kind of dragged their feet, kicked the can down the road,” Mr. Caraway said. “They just decided it was more profitable to hold off on instituting any of these changes until they absolutely had to. But by then, the virus was out of control.”
Smithfield officials said they have enhanced cleaning and disinfection at the plant, provided additional protective gear and expanded employee health benefits. They said they have also installed plexiglass and other physical barriers as well as thermal scanning equipment to detect employees with fevers.
“We are laser-focused on our employees’ health and well-being and are immediately taking all necessary actions to protect them,” Kenneth M. Sullivan, the company’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.
Ms. Deng, the refugee from Sudan, said she and her colleagues initially figured the virus could not be worse than what they had already lived through, “the war, the fighting, not enough to eat.”
After hours on the factory floor, they had gathered around communal tables in the crowded and boisterous lunchrooms, sharing sambusa from Sudan, egg rolls from China, tibs and injera from Ethiopia. They told stories that reflect different paths to the United States, yet struggles that were much the same.