After Saul Sanchez tested positive for the coronavirus at a hospital in Greeley, Colorado, he spoke to his daughter on the phone and asked her to relay a message to his supervisors at work.
“Please call JBS and let them know I’m in the hospital,” his daughter Beatriz Rangel remembered him as saying. “Let them know I will be back.”
The meat-processing company JBS had employed Sanchez, 78, at its plant in Greeley for three decades. He was one of at least 291 people there who tested positive for the coronavirus, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
On April 7, Sanchez became one of at least six employees at the plant to die of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. “My dad was a very hardworking, happy-go-lucky, selfless person,” Rangel said. “It’s a great loss.”
Now Rangel, 53, is in the middle of a new struggle. Hers is one of several families of JBS employees in Greeley seeking compensation for a death caused by COVID-19. The company has denied her family’s claim, as well as at least two others, according to lawyers representing the families who are now taking those claims to court.
Those denials, first reported by Reuters, offered a view of the difficulties faced by families of essential workers who have fallen ill or died because of the coronavirus, many of whom are struggling to cover medical or funeral costs.
“We just have a stack of bills, and I think it’s really taken a toll on my mom, because my dad used to be the one handling all the finances,” Rangel said.
Across the United States, more than 100 meat-processing plants operated by different companies, including Smithfield and Tyson, have had outbreaks of COVID-19, in part because of crowded working conditions. So far, more than 44,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 200 have died, according to the Food & Environment Report Network, which has been tracking the outbreak.
Workers' compensation has traditionally been used to address on-the-job injuries — not fatalities tied to a pandemic that has disrupted millions of lives and killed more than 200,000 people in the United States. Tracing the exact origins of individual infections can be difficult, which appears to have given JBS an avenue to deny compensation claims on the grounds that the illnesses were not necessarily work related.
“It is my understanding that JBS was stating that the workers didn’t contract COVID at the plant,” said Kim Cordova, the president of the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union that represents many JBS employees.
“I think that it’s just further proof that these companies put profit over people, and that they have treated these poor essential workers as disposable or sacrificial human beings for the sake of production or profit,” she added.
Nikki Richardson, a spokeswoman for JBS USA, said in an email that “the workers' compensation claim denials were issued by our third-party claims administrator consistent with the Colorado Workers' Compensation Act.”
State data shows that the Greeley plant was suffering from a COVID-19 outbreak in early April. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in September that it had cited the plant “for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus.”
Richardson said the citation was “entirely without merit,” and the company has contested it.
“It attempts to impose a standard that did not exist in March as we fought the pandemic with no guidance,” she said, adding that JBS had spent more than $182 million to improve safety, invested $160 million to increase workers' compensation, and was in full compliance with health and safety recommendations.
JBS, which is based in São Paulo, Brazil, is the world’s largest meat processor and reported more than $36 billion in net revenue last year. About 6,000 people work at the plant in Greeley.
Several lawyers who are familiar with the Greeley workers' compensation claims said that the paperwork associated with filing them — as well as the denials — presented extra hurdles for workers at the plant, many of whom do not speak English as a first language.
“It’s a game of attrition,” said Mack Babcock, a lawyer representing the family of Daniel Avila Loma, a JBS employee who died of COVID-19 in April, at age 65, and whose request for compensation was tentatively denied in June. “I think it’s immoral, and I think it’s nauseating.”
Rosario Hernandez, 58, said her husband, Alfredo Hernandez, 55, had been unable to return to his custodial job at the Greeley plant after falling ill and being hospitalized in March.
She said he was now at home, still on oxygen, and struggling with symptoms like insomnia and a strange sensation that makes him feel as if mosquitoes were buzzing around his head.
“I feel bad because there’s nothing I can do for him,” Rosario Hernandez said.
So far, her attempt to claim compensation from JBS has not succeeded.
“They need to come forward and approve the workers' comp so it takes care of our bills,” she said. “Because if we’re going to have to pay all of those bills, I’m not going to have anything left at all.”
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Some states have issued executive orders or passed legislation to extend workers' compensation coverage for COVID-19, or to place a higher burden of proof on employers who deny that a coronavirus infection was work related. But in Colorado, a bill to this effect stalled this summer.
According to the Colorado Division of Workers' Compensation, at least 20 reports of COVID-19 deaths had been filed with the agency as of Sept. 26. Only one had been approved for compensation.
Dozens of plants across the country have shut down temporarily — including the JBS plant in Greeley, which closed its doors for about two weeks before reopening on April 24 with new safety protocols.
On April 28, President Donald Trump said in an executive order that meat-processing facilities should stay open so as not to disrupt food supply chains. As plants reopened, many companies were reluctant to disclose detailed coronavirus case counts. That has left many workers and their families in the dark, unsure of how — or whether — they can get relief after a coronavirus infection.
“So many people are affected by what’s happened, and so little is being done,” said Rangel, Sanchez’s daughter. She added that some employees might not know how to file for compensation or avoid filing for fear of retaliation.
“It would probably be easier if we walked away and just mourned my dad,” Rangel said, “but I don’t think we would be honoring his life if we weren’t there to defend or speak for those people who can’t speak for themselves.”
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