How COVID-19 Spread Through A Colorado Meatpacking Plant
A JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado had seen over 300 employees test positive for COVID-19 and six of them die as of August 6.
Weld County’s executive director of public health and environment Mark E. Wallace sent a letter to a JBS human resources director on April 4 which said that workers expressed concerns to healthcare providers about a “work while sick” culture at the plant which “included managers and supervisors coming to work while sick.”
The letter noted that nine of 14 employees who tested positive for COVID-19 had worked while symptomatic.
“It is a culture where you have to go to work if you’re sick because if you miss too many days then they’re, like, threatening to fire you,” said Crystal Rodriguez, a plant worker. “A lot of the supervisors even say themselves when they’re at work and they’re sick, that it’s because they’ll get mad if they take too much time off.”
Kim Cordova, president of the union representing many JBS workers, described conditions indicating a lack of social distancing. The plant has 6,000 employees and a single parking lot serves them all. Workers park in the lot and walk together through a small security shack, an enclosed tunnel and a single door to get to a single time clock area where they punch in for work.
Workers said many of them typically worked shoulder-to-shoulder. Cordova said many workers would simply sneeze instead of sneezing into their elbow because they always have a sharp knife in one hand.
JBS set up a temperature screening operation at the plant entrance but not everyone was screened, according to Cordova.
Cordova said workers weren’t given adequate information on how to protect themselves from the virus, noting that while 30 languages are spoken at the plant, any COVID-19 safety signs were mostly in English.
Workers who told a nurse and medical assistant performing health screenings at JBS that they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms were handed documents telling them how to self-quarantine and where to get tested. This information was only provided in English, though. The workers asked two supervisors if they could receive translated documents they could read.
“I was told, ‘No. If we do it for one, we have to do it for all of the languages,’ ” said medical assistant Sarah-Jean Buck. Nurse Erica Villegas said she was told the same thing.
Buck and Villegas also noted that their thermometers routinely malfunctioned at the plant, so they told their supervisors and were told to wave employees subject to malfunctions into the plant.
JBS enticed employees to show up to work during the COVID-19 outbreak, giving $600 bonuses to employees with good attendance records while many of them worked inches apart without personal protective equipment.
JBS had difficulty supplying masks to all employees due to “global demand and supply chain issues,” according to a JBS spokesman.
Workers continued to complain of a lack of personal protective equipment even after the plant was closed and reopened, adding they can’t socially distance in some parts of the plant.