JBS disputes claim that workers didn’t show up for work on Tuesday due to COVID-19
for Greeley Tribune
A spokesperson for the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo., flatly disputed a local union president’s claim Tuesday, March 31, setting the number of employees who called off work Monday closer to 830, somewhat fewer than the 1,000 workers that United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 president Kim Cordova claimed earlier in the day didn’t come to work.
Cordova said the mass no-show was not prompted by the union, but likely came in mass, unorganized reaction to the company informing the plant of as many as 10 employees who had tested positive for COVID-19.
JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett vigorously denied that claim and its context, pointing to the fact that, he said, since the school closures in Greeley and the surrounding towns, that Mondays have regularly seen about 500 employees absent each week.
“It’s absolutely false that 1,000 workers walked off because of anything going on in the plant,” Bruett said. “We’ve had positives in a few of our facilities, and, every time, we communicate with the team members, implement our pandemic control program, inform them, isolate them, quarantine them. Any notion that we don’t care about the safety of our team members or whatever (Cordova’s) accusations are, it’s just not accurate.”
Bruett called the Greeley Tribune a few hours after the original version of this story published.
“They found out about a couple of people, one or two confirmed cases, in the last couple of days,” Cordova said by phone Tuesday. “My understanding is they started to advise employees that there had been somebody positive. Whether (that person) was actually working in the plant while they were sick and had symptoms or if they got the virus while away on vacation or out of state, that’s information we’re waiting for, and they haven’t released it.”
Not long thereafter, during communications between the union and the company, that number had already grown to something in the neighborhood of eight to 10, Cordova said, though specifics were scant.
“Obviously we understand they’re not going to give us the person’s name,” Cordova said. “But what we’re trying to work through is where did they work last? What department? Who was around them? How much exposure?
“It’s a pretty big facility but if you’ve never been in the plant, it’s amazing how that process works. People work pretty much elbow to elbow. There’s no 6-feet distancing there.”
Bruett declined to share any numbers with the Greeley Tribune about how many employees might have been positively tested.
“We’re not releasing that information at any facilities,” Bruett said, though he did confirm that there were positive cases in a statement emailed to the paper after the phone interview.
Cordova said the union is in the midst of gathering information, which largely will come from the plant itself. The county health department remains reticent about any specifics.
“As we’ve said already, when we’re in the middle of an investigation, we need time to complete that investigation because of all the follow-up that needs to take place,” said Weld County Health and Environment Department spokesman Eric Aakko when asked to confirm the cases at JBS. “We’re not confirming one way or another until we’ve completed the investigation.”
Aakko said he would question the county epidemiologist to see if the county might be able to confirm that JBS employees were testing positive.
But according to Cordova, that confirmation seems to already have been made to the plant, whether through the employees themselves or otherwise.
“This all just happened,” Cordova said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re trying to get the same information. We’ve been demanding from the beginning that the workers should be entitled to sick pay. Right now, they don’t qualify for paid sick time. What the company did agree to, though we’re not done, is if somebody tests positive, (the company) would pay them while they’re quarantined. If somebody advised the company they had symptoms, (the company) was asking them to go to the doctor. We’re demanding they pay them for that time off.”
FIGHTING FOR BENEFITS
The union is fighting for other benefits and provisions for their roughly 3,000 members at the plant of more than 4,500 employees, as well as their thousands of members in other facilities across the state.
“Our biggest struggle is trying to push the company on that end and then trying to push the governor to include food processing workers on the (Colorado Department of Labor and Employement) rule,” Cordova said. “Food processing has been deemed essential and critical work — they’re the food supply source.”
Cordova was referring to a rule that has recently classified healthcare and grocery workers as emergency workers or first responders, providing those workers with enhanced protections and benefits during this period of emergency.
“We were able to get the governor to add grocery workers to the rule,” Cordova said. “But we’re pushing for food processing workers, too.”
Cordova said that at this point, the union is not pushing JBS to close its Greeley plant during the pandemic. But that demand isn’t out of the question.
“Before we make that demand, we need to know the extent of this,” Cordova said.
Bruett said it was unlikely the plant will be closed barring a massive outbreak.
“We’ve been deemed critical infrastructure industry and been told to maintain normal work hours by the federal government because food is critical,” Bruett said. “We would obviously look at, and we have looked at, several scenarios whereby you’d have to slow down production or shift production to other facilities to make sure you can continue to produce food. We’re not going to put people in an unsafe work environment.”
Bruett said the plant will soon have temperature checks at triage stations in front of the plant, and said if someone says he or she is sick, that the plant will pull theme out and send them home.
“We are providing support to those team members and their families, and we hope they all make a full and speedy recovery,” Bruett wrote in his release. ❖
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The Agriculture Department has established a new data report, the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement Seasonal Perishable Products Weekly Update, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service announced on Jan. 11.