State Closes JBS Meatpacking Plant For At Least Two Weeks While Workers Are Tested For COVID-19

JBS Greeley Beef Plant
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The JBS Greeley Beef Plant on Friday April 3, 2020.

State health officials have shut down the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley after dozens of workers there contracted COVID-19.

There are 43 confirmed positive cases among JBS workers. A second plant employee died last week, according to the Weld County Department of Health and Environment.

JBS has come under fire by the United Food and Comercial Workers Local 7, the union that represents most JBS workers, and the families of the workers. They both say the company failed to take sufficient action against COVID-19.

A new health department order published Monday instructs the plant to stay closed until it finishes testing its thousands of employees, disinfecting the facility and implementing social distancing practices.

Workers usually work shoulder-to-shoulder.

The plant will be closed for at least two weeks, JBS announced Monday, but the closure could extend longer if the company doesn't meet all the requirements.

Weld County health officials will be conducting random inspections of the plant to ensure the company is complying with the order.

"While the Greeley beef facility is critical to the U.S. food supply and local producers, the continued spread of coronavirus in Weld County requires decisive action," said Andre Nogueira, the U.S. CEO of JBS, in a news release. "As a leading member of this community, we believe we must do our part to support our local health professionals and first responders leading the fight against coronavirus."

The company closed its plant in Pennsylvania last week because management employees there were showing flu-like symptoms, according to a company spokesperson.

The order was put together by the state and Weld County health departments. It says the testing program must include a symptom and exposure screening as well as ongoing testing and monitoring for employees that test negative.

JBS must also provide housing and leave for sick and exposed workers — at least seven days for isolation and 14 days for quarantine.

Housing must fulfill workers' access and functional needs, meals that accommodate dietary and religious standards, mental health support and technology for contact with family and religious practices, according to the order.

The order also says workers must have access to hard-to-find personal protective equipment, plus handwashing and sanitizing stations.

Bathrooms at JBS are often out of soap, worker Crystal Rodriguez said.

A major concern raised by the union was that the company did not communicate the risks of the coronavirus or ways to stay healthy to its employees. More than 30 languages are spoken at the Greeley plant, union president Kim Cordova said.

The state order commands the company to increase signage and communication about, "COVID-19 symptoms and the importance of social distancing, appropriate mask use, and hand hygiene in languages appropriate for workers in the facility." It also has to notify non-employees like cleaners and contractors about the outbreak and provide testing to those who need it.

The union has filed multiple safety complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Cordova said.

Failure to comply with this health order could result in fines up to $1,000 and up to a year in county jail.

JBS said it has been following health guidelines and offering help for sick employees. The company also said it already adopted safety measures like increased sanitation; staggered starts, shifts and breaks; and temperature testing employees.