Weld County Warned JBS About Its ‘Work While Sick’ Culture A Week Before Shutting Them Down

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

On April 4, Weld County's executive director of public health and environment sent a letter to the human resources director at a meatpacking plant operated by JBS.

The letter contained a warning: Take steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 among your employees or we'll shut you down.

On that date, Weld County knew of 194 employees or their dependents that had or were suspected to have the coronavirus. Dr. Mark Wallace wrote there was "a perception by employees of a 'work while sick' culture that included managers and supervisors coming to work while sick."

They also were already doing an investigation of the spread of COVID-19 inside the plant: "Our investigation of JBS employees with positive cases reveals that nine of 14 worked while symptomatic and therefore were contagious to others."

Among the steps Wallace outlined JBS must take: Don't allow sick employees to work. Screen all employees for high temperatures and cough before their shifts. Adhere to social distancing guidelines inside the plant requiring 6 feet of space between workers.

A week later, health officials closed the plant. By then, four workers were dead or dying.

Documents obtained by CPR show JBS had a week under the April 4 public health order to clean up and better protect employees. That apparently didn't happen to the satisfaction of health authorities.

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

Wallace told JBS Human Resources head Christopher Gaddis that health care providers in Greeley noted a significant increase in the number of JBS employees and dependents being evaluated for COVID-19 symptoms in their facilities. The health care professionals told Weld County that many were requiring high levels of care and expressed concerns about the work environment and culture at the plant.

"It is a culture where you have to go to work if you're sick because if you miss too many days then they're, like, threatening to fire you," said plant worker Crystal Rodriguez. "A lot of the supervisors even say themselves when they're at work and they're sick, that it's because they'll get mad if they take too much time off."

The lack of social distancing starts long before the workers get inside the plant, according to Kim Cordova, president of the union that represents many JBS workers. There is one parking lot for 6,000 employees. Each shift, thousands of workers park there and walk together through a small security shack, then through an enclosed tunnel under the highway to the entrance to the plant, where they all enter through a single door and go to a single time clock area to punch in.

Cordova said even after the first public health order was issued April 4, workers were not being given enough information on protecting themselves from the virus. She said any signage about safety was predominately in English. More than 30 languages are spoken at the plant.

"Workers were really kept in the dark about COVID," Cordova said. "I think that had a lot to do with how fast it spread through the plant."

Workers on the floor have on safety equipment to protect them from cow blood, Cordova said, but they have a sharp knife in one hand. She said it is common practice that when a worker needed to sneeze, instead of raising the knife to sneeze into their elbow, they just sneeze.

After the first order required temperature and contact screenings for all employees, JBS did set up a thermometer to check people as they entered the plant. But Cordova said not everyone was screened. Some workers were allowed to park closer to the plant building and weren't screened. Maintenance workers who got there before the temperature gauge was set up also weren't screened, she said. Some members told the union the company said workers under a certain height were too short to be registered by the machine.

The Weld County Department of Public Health & Environment received the first report of a positive test in a JBS employee on March 26.

On April 2, department director Dr. Mark Wallace had a conversation with JBS's head of HR, Christopher Gaddis. In that conversation, Wallace shared information gathered in a public health investigation of COVID-19 at the factory, according to emails and letters between Weld County and JBS.

The Weld County investigation into COVID-19 positive JBS employees found at least 9 of 14 sick workers as of April 4 worked while symptomatic and therefore were contagious to others, Wallace wrote in a letter to JBS.

The positive case count at JBS has since risen to 102, in addition to the four employees who have died.

The public health order put in place on April 4 required JBS to make major changes in its operations. JBS officials were told to require 6 feet of space between workers in any area of the plant. Workers said many of them normally work shoulder-to-shoulder.

Sick workers were to be prohibited from working. JBS was instructed to individually screen every employee for the presence of cough or fever, exposure to someone with respiratory illness, or to someone with COVID-19. Weld County said to take each employee's temperature every day. The order also told JBS to notify any employee that was exposed to a coworker positive for the coronavirus and be allowed to self-isolate for 14 days.

Six days after the order was sent to JBS, Weld County and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ordered the plant to be closed for at least two weeks.

That 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.

Cordova said the plant closed the floor side of the plant but some union members in other parts of the plant kept working until Wednesday.

Weld County health officials also have been conducting random inspections of the plant to ensure the company is complying with the order.

JBS has previously told CPR it has been following health guidelines and offering help for sick employees.

JBS did not return calls for comment on the April 4 order. Weld County officials declined to comment Friday.