The coronavirus pandemic has rapidly altered the way many people live their lives. While millions of workers across the country have begun to work remotely from their homes to prevent the spread of the disease, there are still millions of essential workers who do not have that luxury. In Greeley, nearly 300 of these essential workers became victims of the largest single-workplace coronavirus outbreak in Colorado.
More than eight months after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Colorado, the Brazilian-owned meat processing company, JBS USA, is still under fire for its alleged failure to prevent the spread of the disease in its Greeley beef production site.
JBS USA is a branch of the Brazilian JBS S.A., one of the largest meat processing companies in the world. The American branch’s headquarters are in Greeley, just over 10 miles away from its Greeley beef production facility. In the 13 years since JBS USA entered the market, it has grown to be the second-largest meat processing company in the country, according to a 2020 report by The National Provisioner.
The Greeley beef production facility saw an outbreak of COVID-19 beginning in March that was not declared to be over until late September. In that time span, nearly 300 production workers contracted the disease. Six of them died.
The facility is currently facing its second outbreak, which started on Nov. 17. At least 96 workers have tested positive since then. So far, no deaths have been reported in this current outbreak.
In September, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a fine for more than $15,000 to JBS USA for failing to protect employees at the Greeley facility from the coronavirus. Shortly after the fine was issued, JBS USA released a statement claiming that the fine was completely unwarranted, but Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 7, has repeatedly said that the fine should have been much higher.
The UFCW Local 7 represents all production workers in the Greeley facility who have been employed for more than 30 days. Cordova and other union leaders have been outspoken about what they say is negligence on the part of JBS to protect its workers from the coronavirus. One union member, who asked to remain anonymous, said that JBS’ priorities throughout the pandemic have not adequately changed to accommodate for worker safety.
“I think our responsibilities differ,” the source said, comparing the union’s priorities to those of JBS. “You know, the company is profit driven. The union is gonna be member driven.”
The source went on to outline a series of ways in which JBS has allegedly endangered its Greeley workers.
Between the fabrication and slaughter floors of the facility, more than 1,000 production workers are on shift on a given day, a number that the anonymous union member said has not been significantly reduced. The source then said that, although plastic dividers have been put up between workstations, the amount of people still coming into work makes it impossible to practice social distancing.
Another allegation made by the source was that employees who take time off of work for showing symptoms of COVID-19 do not receive full pay for the time they spent off if they end up testing negative.
Finally, the source said that, apart from a single poster, JBS management has not made an effort to inform employees about necessary personal protective equipment or about what the symptoms of COVID-19 are.
Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs and sustainability at JBS USA, declined to speak on the company’s coronavirus response via phone or video conference. While he agreed to be asked questions via email, he responded to those questions with a statement that did not directly comment on any of them.
Similar statements from Bruett appeared in pieces by Colorado Public Radio and Drovers Daily. Each paragraph that Bruett included in the statement was also sent verbatim to Drovers Daily for a Dec. 4 piece.
Throughout it, Bruett repeatedly says that he and the rest of JBS USA’s leaders are confident that they are adequately handling this current outbreak.
“We are not identifying many close contacts at our corporate office or at our Greeley beef plant that are COVID-19 positive,” Bruett said. “This gives us optimism that our interventions are working well and that cases are not being contracted in our facilities or spreading person-to-person among our workforce.”
When Bruett was informed via email of the allegations that were made by the anonymous source, he had no comment.
In the statement, Bruett said that the company has voluntarily removed 202 employees from the Greeley facility over the course of the pandemic, but according to JBS USA’s official website, more than 3,000 people are employed at that facility. This means that the in-person workforce at the facility has only been reduced by 6.8% at most.
Workers at the facility are legally classified as essential, so the company is not required by Colorado government to reduce that facility’s shift capacity at all. Still, the state recommends that all workplaces avoid any gatherings of more than 10 people.
As for the source’s allegations that JBS is not fully paying COVID-negative workers for their time off after showing symptoms, and that management is not informing workers about PPE or symptoms to look out for, Bruett had no comment.