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How Language Barriers Created America’s Largest Coronavirus Hotspot

How Language Barriers Created America’s Largest Coronavirus Hotspot

Language access and language assistance can take many forms, adjusting to various scenarios. There are multiple federal laws that mandate language assistance by federally funded organizations for people who cannot read, write, or speak English very well or at all, including Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

However, what if a business receives no federal funding?

While those businesses may not be legally required to provide interpreters or translated materials, these language access options remain a prudent business practice to enable employer-employee and business-customer conversations. Without a legal mandate, however, the lack of multiple language access and other multilingual communication options can be undoubtedly bad for business.

It can also be a life or death issue, as the meatpacking industry has recently discovered.

The Backstory

According to NBC News:

“Forty different languages are spoken at the South Dakota pork processing plant that has become a coronavirus hotspot. Workers who showed symptoms [of being infected with COVID-19] were sent home with informational packets that were written only in English, federal investigators revealed Thursday.

While English is one of the top 10 languages spoken at the plant, so too are Spanish, Kunama, Swahili, Nepali, Tigrinya, Amharic, French, Oromo and Vietnamese.

This failure to properly communicate with limited English proficient staff members may be part of the reason why 783 workers at Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls have tested positive and two have died from COVID-19, according to a 15-page memo released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[On April 21, KELO reported that the Sioux Falls plant was the largest coronavirus hotspot in the United States]

“We understand that if an employee was found to have a fever or symptoms consistent with COVID-19, they were given an informational packet (in English) and instructed to return home,” the CDC report stated.

But “plant management reported that there were approximately 40 different languages spoken by employees at the plant.”

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) investigators visited the Smithfield plant on April 16 and 17. Upon arrival, they soon discovered that the language barrier threatened to impede their inspection and investigation.

According to NBC:

“Our team was unable to identify important demographic information about this workforce, limiting our ability to understand the diversity of the employees,” the CDC report said. We were also unable to obtain information about the workstations of confirmed positive cases. This type of information could provide a better understanding of what workplace factors contributed to the spread of COVID-19 among employees…

Mismanagement & Lack of Preventative Action

The close quarter’s assembly line working conditions in a meatpacking plant may have played a critical part in making the Sioux Falls facility America’s top coronavirus hotspot on April 21. 

The first plant worker tested positive on March 24, but the plant was not shut down until April 14. But before that happened, the CDC reported that workers were promised extra money if they showed up for work during the pandemic.

Additionally we learned of a ‘responsibility bonus’ of $500 being offered to employees who did not miss time (e.g. were not late or sick) during the time period of April 1, 2020 through May 1, 2020,” the report stated.

Center for Disease Control Recommendations

At Smithfield Foods in South Dakota, the CDC report suggested 11 recommendations for the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, including

  • Speeding up the installation of plexiglass barriers on production lines
  • Adding 100 more time clocks to prevent bottlenecks
  • Boosting the number of hand sanitizer stations to 3,500 so there is at least one per worker
  • Designating staffers to roam the floor and provide hand sanitizer to workers on the line every 30 minutes.

“A combination of control measures with ongoing education and training will be useful in reducing or eliminating transmission in the workplace,” the report said. “These recommendations are intended for this specific Smithfield plant, but broader interim recommendations for meat and poultry processing industries are in development.”

The South Dakota Department of Health is requiring the company to submit a plan of action before it reopens and expects it to follow the CDC recommendations.

To address the plant’s language barrier, CDC recommends “using more pictures/pictograms and adding more languages to increase the percentage of the workforce that engages with signs and messaging.”

Some of the additional recommendations include the following:

  • If feasible, all employees should wear the face covering being used by the company to cover their nose and mouth in all areas of the plant (including break areas and locker rooms).

Some specific considerations that the plant can follow include:

  • Continuing with the plan for all employees wear a face covering and a face shield anytime they are at work. The face shield is being used in this plant to supplement the use of the face covering. Employees should wear the supplied facial covering to cover their nose and mouth if possible – this may prevent people who do not know they have the virus from transmitting it to others. 
  • Management and supervisor training to ensure employees follow these recommended guidelines. 
  • Making replacement face masks available in case an employee’s face mask becomes wet or soiled

The CDC report also includes these considerations to improve the existing sick leave policies and practices: 

  • Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of and understand these policies. 
  • Adjusting any incentive programs such that employees are not penalized for taking sick leave related to COVID-19. 
  • Maintaining flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member or take care of children due to school and childcare closures. Additional flexibilities might include giving advances on future sick leave and allowing employees to donate sick leave to each other. 
  • Discontinuing any policies requiring a positive COVID-19 test result or a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work. Healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner. 
  • Reviewing human resources policies to make sure that policies and practices are consistent with public health recommendations and are consistent with existing state and federal workplace laws.”

There was no immediate response from Smithfield’s CEO, Kenneth Sullivan. The company’s chief spokesperson, Keira Lombardo, said in a statement: “We will thoroughly and carefully examine the report point by point and respond in full once our assessment is complete.”

© Bruce L. Adelson 2020. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only. No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise. Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney. Mr. Adelson is a Department of Family Medicine faculty member at Georgetown University School of Medicine where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.

Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive



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