Update: Another worker at the JBS facility has died from coronavirus, bringing the death toll to seven. We will continue to update this article as more information comes in.
Editor’s note: This story includes a source who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Sentient Media has complete knowledge of the unnamed person’s identity and of how that person is in a position to know the information.
Crystal Rodriguez’s father is breathing through a ventilator. They worked together at the JBS meatpacking facility in Greeley, Colorado until Friday, March 27th, when a spokesperson for the company says 830 called in sick. Some were protecting themselves and their families or acting in solidarity with their coworkers. Others were truly, gravely ill.
Early in the outbreak, when the JBS beef plant reported six confirmed COVID-19 cases to the United Food and Commercial Workers Local Seven (UFCW) union on April 1st, a Greeley area doctor anonymously confirmed to local news that they had personally seen more than a dozen patients come in from the JBS plant with COVID-19 symptoms.
“When the first cases broke out on our line, a lady got sick and was admitted to the hospital. They never told anybody,” Rodriguez said. “When you asked where she was… they would say that they’re on vacation, but in reality, they’re in the hospital.”
Considering a 12 percent hospitalization rate in the U.S., the facility may have been harboring hundreds of undiagnosed cases for nearly two weeks before it closed on April 11th after an order issued by the Weld County Health Department. The Health Department investigation found 43 confirmed cases, including 14 hospitalizations and two deaths at three Weld County medical clinics, who recorded at least 277 visits from JBS workers in a one-month period. The death count has since risen to seven.
Sources inside the plant, some of whom wish to remain anonymous, attest that management failed to implement adequate testing or distancing protocol, made false promises about obtaining personal protective equipment, and denied or delayed access to on-site medical facilities.
“They know that people go there sick and they don’t have enough soap and they don’t have enough sanitizer and we’re all so close to each other,” Rodriguez said. “People go to work because they’re scared to lose their job… Half of them don’t speak English… Where are they going to work? What other company out here besides JBS is going to give them a job?”
In a disproportionately immigrant workplace where some 36 languages are spoken, JBS does not typically see high rates of absenteeism. But facing massive “sick-outs,” the corporation implemented incentives to keep workers returning to the facility. In lieu of hazard pay, the company offered workers free beef rolls and one-dollar family lunch bags, which the local 7-Eleven gave out for free.
While the union was able to negotiate temporary wage increases or paid leave with other local plants, JBS only offered a $600 bonus to UFCW members after six weeks of working through the pandemic. A JBS spokesperson told local news that absences due to sickness did not impact the bonus, but Rodriguez said that many workers were ineligible for paid sick leave and even one day calling in sick without a doctor’s note before May 15th could make an employee ineligible.
On more than one occasion, workers reported having coworking family members hospitalized with the virus. They say the company expected them to keep returning to work, even though supervisors knew they had been exposed. Rodriguez says she was expected to call in daily to excuse her intubated father from his department.
During periods when some departments at the Greeley JBS plant were staffed at 50 percent or less, workers said the lines were still running full-speed, increasing the likelihood of injury. When workers are hurt on the job, they are sent through an internal system in which physical therapists can refer them to doctors, which they say can take months. After filing an injury report during a low-staff period, the anonymous source said that if they went to the emergency room or an external doctor before their appointment with the company’s active release therapist several workdays later, they could be punished or fired. In the meantime, they were expected to maintain full output.
Combining political and economic influence, a plausible claim to essential status, a marginalized workforce, and an elbow-to-elbow workflow behind concrete walls, the meat-processing sector created a perfect storm for transmission of the coronavirus. Outbreaks have also occurred at JBS plants in Iowa, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania, where another plant was temporarily shut down.
Amid mounting cases and deaths, workers and unions have begun to speak out across the industry, forcing shut-downs and walk-outs at facilities owned by Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill, Perdue, and others. Their demands are similar to other frontline workers, including personal protective equipment, paid sick leave, and hazard wages. The crisis has even drawn attention from the White House, as several meat-processing facilities have emerged as infection epicenters.
In South Dakota, one Smithfield plant reported 80 percent of cases in the state before being closed. Days later, U.S. Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue stated that he was working to reopen the plant “as soon as possible”. Still, union representatives have widely claimed that, like the nation as a whole, these facilities are chronically under-tested. At JBS in Greeley, several testing events were canceled without explanation.
In its communications with the workforce, JBS often reminds employees that they’re helping to “feed the world” by coming into work. “It’s for the good of the nation,” a JBS spokesperson told local news. But some workers aren’t convinced. “They say they care about their employees, [but] they don’t,” said Rodriguez.
JBS is the biggest meatpacking corporation in the world. It controls nearly one-fifth of the national beef market. The corporation’s global headquarters is in Brazil, where it has been charged on multiple occasions for illegal deforestation and recently linked to a massacre of Indigenous Amazonians. The U.S. headquarters in Greeley, Colorado, reportedly makes $27.8 billion in a year, can slaughter 28,600 cows in a day, and is the largest employer in the city, with roughly 6,000 employees. In 2014, the company paid an OSHA fine after an exposed snag point at the facility dragged a worker by his hair into a conveyor belt and killed him. In 2019, the same facility was sued for years of illegal water pollution. In 2006, ICE officials arrested 1,300 workers at the Greeley plant and five others owned by Swift meatpacking, which was subsequently acquired by JBS, and bused them to ICE detention centers in the largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history.
In supermarkets, JBS products are sold under a long list of brand names, including Swift, Pilgrim’s, 5 Star, Showcase, Clear River, Aspen Ridge, and Iowa Select.
“I hope to God they never have to go through what me and my family are going through,” Rodriquez said through tears over the phone.
The plant could reopen as early as April 25th.
Spencer is a musician, ecologist, and rooftop solar engineer from Colorado. His work recently appeared in Jacobin.