Colorado Leads Nation For Most COVID-19 Deaths Connected To Meat Processing Plants, Sixth Greeley JBS Employee Dies

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

A report by the Centers for Disease Control puts Colorado at the top of its list of states with COVID-19-related deaths connected to meat processing plants.

The CDC counts five deaths for Colorado, ahead of Delaware with four. The rest of the states report two or fewer deaths.

But since the report's release, another JBS Greeley beef plant employee has died of COVID-19, according to the union that represents the plant's workers. Daniel Avila, 65, had worked at the facility for 30 years.

"They didn't sign up to die for their job," said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7. "They signed up to be a good employee, to make a living and to have a piece of the American dream. Not live this nightmare."

There have been 245 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Greeley plant, where many of the 6,000 employees are refugees or immigrants. It makes it one of the largest outbreaks in the state, second only to the Sterling Correctional Facility.

The JBS plant was initially ordered to close for two weeks before it re-opened without testing all its employees for COVID-19 — something the White House and the company had promised to do. Cordova said employees are scared to return without that information.

"If six people died in your office and you had 245 people that were positive, and they still didn't test everybody in your office, how confident would you feel in your work environment? Any reasonable person would say, 'Not very confident,'" Cordova said.

In an email to CPR News, JBS argues they took a "more aggressive action" than testing, by asking employees to self-quarantine during the time the plant was closed.

There was a seventh Colorado meat-packing plant death at the Cargill facility in Fort Morgan, according to state records.

President Trump has ordered meat plants to stay open during the pandemic, declaring them critical infrastructure for their role in the nation’s food supply. Cordova feels profit is being valued more than the lives of meat plant employees. She argues race plays a role.

"If there were not this type of population in the plant, this would never happen. You would see riots in the street," she said. "They're being treated like replaceable objects."

There was a seventh Colorado meat-packing plant death at a Cargill facility in Fort Morgan, according to state records. As many as 57 workers have tested positive or shown symptoms of COVID-19 at that plant.

Employees shouldn't be in a situation where they feel quitting is the only way to stay safe, Cordova said. They have families to take care of, and a language barrier and a lack of savings might make them feel stuck.

Cordova is worried that without certain enforceable mandates in place like daily testing, access to healthcare and paid sick leave, proper protective gear and regular federal health inspections, that they're will be more deaths.

"I never thought in my lifetime I would see anything like this," she said.