Workers protest $15K fine issued to Greeley meat plant after 6 COVID-19 deaths

FILE – In this April 8, 2020, file photo, a truck bearing Weld County insignia sits outside the administrative office entrance at JBS USA in Greeley, Colo. A union representing workers at a JBS USA meatpacking plant in Colorado where six workers have died of the coronavirus and hundreds more were infected is protesting a $15,615 fine against the company for failing to provide safe working conditions at the plant in Greeley. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union says JBS failed to protect workers from getting sick and didn’t compensate them for working under the risk of contracting COVID-19. (Alex McIntyre/The Greeley Tribune via AP, File)

DENVER  |  A union representing workers at a Greeley meatpacking plant where six workers died of COVID-19 and hundreds more were infected staged a protest Wednesday, claiming that federal officials should have fined the company more for its alleged failure to provide safe working conditions.

The JBS USA-owned plant in Greeley was issued a $15,615 fine on Sept. 11 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union called the fine for the multi-billion dollar company “insulting” and “ineffectual,” but JBS says it’s unwarranted. The union’s Local 7, which represents about 3,000 workers at the plant, asked co-workers and relatives of those who died and were infected to protest outside OSHA’s Denver offices.

“After seven deaths and seven months they issued a lousy, measly $15,000 fine,” local president Kim Cordova declared to several dozen demonstrators, some holding signs that read “Shame on OSHA” and “Life is cheap for JBS.”

“Fifteen thousand dollars is not going to stop them or force them to be a better and more responsible employer,” Cordova said.

One of the first things Saul Sanchez, who’d worked 30 years at the plant, did when he was diagnosed with the coronavirus in March was to let his supervisor know he’d miss work, daughter Beatriz Rangel told protesters.

“My dad’s biggest concern was calling JBS,” she said. “My dad had more concern for his co-workers and the employees of JBS than JBS did themselves.”

Sanchez, 78, died of COVID in April. Another daughter, Patty Rangel, an ICU nurse, said Wednesday she was present when personnel turned off his ventilator.

Fifteen thousand dollars “doesn’t even cover one funeral,” said Rosario Hernandez, the wife of Alfredo Hernandez, a janitor at the plant who was sickened by the virus and still uses a breathing machine.

OSHA said JBS Foods Inc. in Greeley — operating as Swift Beef Co. — failed to protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus. The fine followed a plant inspection in May and is the maximum allowed by law, OSHA said.

JBS failed to protect workers from getting sick and didn’t adequately compensate them for working under the risk of contracting the virus, the union said in a statement. At least 290 workers at the plant tested positive for COVID-19, the Colorado health department has said. One corporate supervisor at the facility also died.

In a statement Wednesday, JBS USA said the fine “is entirely without merit” and “attempts to impose a standard that did not exist in March as we fought the pandemic with no guidance.”

JBS said protective measures at the plant follow, if not exceed, guidelines for safety and social distancing issued by OSHA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and had been approved by local and state health authorities.

Those measures include 24-hour cleaning at the plant, random testing of employees, screening employees before work, staggered shifts and breaks, physical barriers between workstations and other measures, Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs, said in the statement. He said there have been no positive cases in Greeley in nearly seven weeks.

Bruett added the company had provided a year’s pay to survivors of those who died. It raised wages and granted bonuses to its workers during the pandemic, he said.

In a similar case, OSHA fined Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota $13,494. At least 1,294 workers at that plant contracted the virus, and four employees died in the spring, officials had said.

The UFCW represents more than 1.3 million workers in retail food, food processing, agriculture, retail sales, and health care.

Sanchez was the Greeley facility’s first known COVID-19 death, on April 7. JBS temporarily shuttered its Greeley operations on April 13 to deep-clean the plant, install a new ventilation system and physical barriers on production lines and enhance social distancing protocols, according to a company statement. The location reopened on April 24.

JBS USA is a subsidiary of Brazil-based JBS S.A., one of the world’s largest meat processors. It also holds a majority interest in Pilgrim’s Pride, the United States’ second largest poultry company.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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This story has been updated to corrects attribution of a quote in the 9th paragraph to Rosario Hernandez, wife of a sickened worker, and not to Patty Rangel.

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Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.