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‘Essential worker just means you’re on the death track’

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‘Essential worker just means you’re on the death track’

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – John Deranamie knows what danger looks like.Danger was people dying in front of his eyes during the Liberian civil war nearly 30 years ago, and the hunger that gripped his family as he split a cup of rice between five people for a meal. It was the fear that pushed him to flee…

‘Essential worker just means you’re on the death track’

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – John Deranamie knows what danger looks like.

Danger was people dying in front of his eyes during the Liberian civil war nearly 30 years ago, and the hunger that gripped his family as he split a cup of rice between five people for a meal. It was the fear that pushed him to flee his home at 22 years old for a chance at a better life in America.

Now, the 50-year-old is facing danger again.

This time, it’s the threat of the coronavirus, which killed at least two of his coworkers at the Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls. It’s the worry he felt when his locker mates coughed and bumped into his shoulder in the crowded locker room, and the desperation he felt while praying in his bedroom after learning he tested positive for COVID-19.

Danger is showing up to work in difficult surroundings while the rest of the world stays home. But Deranamie doesn’t have a choice.

America’s Food Chain: Essential workers face dangers to feed the country

John Deranamie, a Smithfield Foods employee, describes the risks of being an essential employee and playing a key role in America’s food supply chain.

Abigail Dollins, Sioux Falls Argus Leader

He’s one of 3,700 workers at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, where more than 800 employees have contracted the novel virus spreading across the world. But those employees are just a fraction of essential workers across the nation who are feeding America.

Deranamie understands the importance of his role in the food supply and keeping Americans fed. But he’s risking his life every time he steps into his uniform, he said.

“I don’t like the term essential worker,” he said. “Essential worker just means you’re on the death track.”

John Deranamie holds an essential worker card given to him from Smithfield.Abigail Dollins / Argus Leader

John Deranamie
I don’t like the term essential worker. Essential worker just means you’re on the death track.

Deranamie can smell his workplace from outside his front door.

He lives about two miles southeast of the plant, and when the wind changes just right the stench of dried pigs’ blood permeates Sioux Falls, which is South Dakota’s largest city with a population of 180,000.

The smell doesn’t bother him. It’s the scent of his livelihood that lingers on his clothes for the past eight years.

Deranamie was driven to work by his family at the beginning of April – his last day at work and a week before the Virginia-based company announced it would close the Sioux Falls plant because of the coronavirus outbreak.

He opened the vehicle door and turned around to say goodbye to his family. One of his children recoiled at the smell wafting into the vehicle.

“You go to school and you learn,” Deranamie lectured before closing the door. “Then you won’t have to be at this stinky place like me.”

Days later, Deranamie tested positive for COVID-19.

John Deranamie spends time with his youngest son, Nehemiah Deranamie, 1, on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, at his home in Sioux Falls, S.D. Deranamie, a Smithfield Foods employee, tested positive for COVID-19 and has been spending time at home with family since the meatpacking plant shut down.

John Deranamie spends time with his youngest son, Nehemiah Deranamie, 1, on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, at his home in Sioux Falls, S.D. Deranamie, a…
John Deranamie spends time with his youngest son, Nehemiah Deranamie, 1, on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, at his home in Sioux Falls, S.D. Deranamie, a Smithfield Foods employee, tested positive for COVID-19 and has been spending time at home with family since the meatpacking plant shut down.

Abigail Dollins / Argus Leader

Sioux Falls wasn’t Deranamie’s first choice to live out his American dream. He moved to Minnesota when he was 26 years old but he struggled to find lasting employment for 18 years. He met his now-wife while he was living in St. Paul, and he was lured to Sioux Falls with the promise of a steady job, strong pay and ample benefits at the meatpacking plant.

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“I hardly believed I would be able to get a job, pay my rent and support my babies,” he said. “I came and filled out an application, and I was lucky to get a job.”

Deranamie started out as a package worker, sorting product into boxes for $10 an hour. Now, he makes $18.20 an hour as a night-shift utility worker, filling in for various positions across the plant. The pay increase has helped support his growing family of eight children – six in Sioux Falls and two children from previous relationships. He’s able to support the family he left behind in Liberia as well.

Half of his Smithfield paycheck goes to his mother and siblings in Liberia, and to save money as part of his plan to return home one day to West Africa.

Deranamie rarely sees his children. He works 50 to 60 hours a week on the night-shift production line, coming home exhausted early in the morning.

He’s fast asleep by the time his children buzz through the house getting dressed for school.

John Deranamie spends time with family on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, at his home in Sioux Falls, S.D. Deranamie would normally work more than 50 hours a week to provide for his family but has been spending time at home since Smithfield Foods shut down after becoming one of the largest hot spots for COVID-19.

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