The JBS beef packing plant in Greeley will reopen Friday, eight days after the plant shut down because scores of workers were infected with the novel coronavirus and despite ongoing concerns for the safety of employees.
About 1,600 employees will return Friday and Saturday, and about 3,000 on Monday as the plant restarts production at around 60% of its capacity, plant general manager Jay Rawlings said Thursday. The company has taken a variety of measures to ensure the plant is safe, he said.
But some workers this week said they don’t feel safe returning, in part because the majority of employees have not been tested for the novel coronavirus. JBS tested about 200 supervisors for COVID-19 before halting the program, despite promises from Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Jared Polis to increase testing among workers. Pence had said the federal government would send testing resources, but JBS confirmed Thursday they did not receive any.
Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, said Wednesday the union is opposed to reopening the plant without widespread employee testing.
“They’re just going to reopen and they’re giving my workers a death sentence,” she said.
JBS officials objected to Cordova’s characterization Thursday, as they outlined the steps taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 among employees.
“Her comments about our facility being a ‘potential death sentence’ struck us all as being uninformed and completely contrary to the guidance we’ve received from the CDC, NIOSH, the Colorado department of health and the Weld County department of health,” Chris Gaddis, head of human resources, said.
Weld County health officials toured the plant Thursday and cleared it to reopen, he said.
Starting Friday, all employees will be screened outside the plant for fever, and anyone with a high temperature or other symptoms of sickness will be separated and stopped from entering the plant. For the first five days after Friday’s restart, the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment will test symptomatic employees for COVID-19 on-site at the plant at the start of each shift.
JBS has also installed extra hand sanitizing stations and placed plexi-glass barriers between seats in the break area. Officials have updated signs — in 11 languages — to remind employees to take health precautions. On the fabrication floor, where employees work side-by-side, the company is putting in stainless steel dividers between workers. About two-thirds of the dividers will be installed by Monday, Rawlings said.
Four JBS employees — three at the plant and one in the corporate office — have died from COVID-19. Testing has confirmed 102 cases among JBS employees, but county health officials estimate many more people are infected, with around 300 cases among plant workers.
Gaddis declined to say how many of the 200 supervisors tested positive for the disease.
Without testing, workers will be returning to the plant with no way to know if they could be carrying the coronavirus or be in danger of being infected by an asymptomatic coworker, Cordova said, adding that many officials promised testing at the facility.
“Vice President Pence, Donald Trump… said they were going to bring testing for the JBS workers, they committed to that,” she said. “They failed the workers, they never did it. Weld County issued a public order saying workers had to be tested before it reopened; they failed the workers. The governor got up at multiple press conferences and said the workers in that plant would be tested; they’re not going to test the workers.”
The company opted to shut down the plant for several days instead of continuing testing, which Gaddis said only shows a “snapshot” at one moment in time.
“If I test on a Tuesday, then I go into the community on Wednesday and acquire the virus, then come back to work on Thursday,” he said. “The test itself isn’t an insurance policy.”
The pause in production at the plant was intended to interrupt any spread of the coronavirus, he said.
JBS did not receive any test kits from the federal government, Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs, said but the company did receive 50,000 masks. The JBS Greeley plant also has 87,000 masks on hand for employees; masks are required for anyone at the plant.
There’s no guarantee that an asymptomatic carrier of the virus won’t come to work at the plant, Gaddis said. But he said the precautions are designed to stop the spread inside the plant even if workers unknowingly are carrying the virus.
“You can’t be sure,” he said. “That’s the trouble with this virus. They may bring it into the plant, but the plant itself is not going to be a transmission point for it. We are going to do everything we can possibly do to ensure that carrier is the final carrier of that virus.”
The plant closed on April 16 after two days of limited operations, and it’s reopening nine days later, less than the 14-day incubation period for the novel coronavirus. The plant’s slaughtering employees, who will return Friday, have not been at work since April 9, Gaddis said. And its fabrication employees, who will return Monday, have not been at work since April 15.
Plant employee Jose De Los Santos said he hasn’t worked since March 23, when he got sick with COVID-19 symptoms. He was never tested, but his wife, who has asthma, got sick after he did, and she tested positive for the novel coronavirus, he said.
He said he’s living on food stamps and his income tax return right now, and that he’ll have to go back to work eventually, despite his concerns about health conditions in the plant and interacting with coworkers.
“There is no social distance there,” he said.
Cordova said the union’s contract prohibits them from organizing a strike, but she said workers can’t be required to work in unsafe conditions.
“I cannot stand up as president of the union and say it is safe to go back,” she said. “And I think workers have the right to refuse to work in an unsafe environment.”
State health officials have recorded COVID-19 outbreaks at four meat production plants in the state, including the Cargill plant in Fort Morgan, which has seen 15 confirmed cases and one death. That plant will continue to operate with reduced shifts for the foreseeable future, a spokesman said Thursday. Small outbreaks have also been recorded at Mountain States Rosen in Weld County, which had three confirmed cases, and Rocky Mountain National Meats in Adams County, which had 16.
JBS also has closed plants in Pennsylvania and Minnesota because of the novel coronavirus. Bruett said that at the Pennsylvania plant, which has since reopened, managers saw about 50% attendance on the first day back, but 80% on the second day, which he said showed workers felt safe with the additional precautions.
On Wednesday, one Greeley worker who asked to remain anonymous because she feared retaliation for speaking publicly, said she received a coronavirus test on April 9 through JBS. But she hasn’t received the results, and said she’s scheduled to return to work Monday.
She’s not sure, though, if she’ll go back right away, particularly because her husband is showing symptoms of COVID-19.
“They’re not doing anything to take care of the people,” she said in Spanish. “They don’t care about the workers. They only care that people do their jobs and make money.”
Reporter Elise Schmelzer contributed.
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