Updated 3:32 p.m.
Before the sun was fully up Friday, JBS meatpacking plant workers were already in line at the company’s Greeley plant for their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
It’s been nearly a year since the plant’s first outbreak, which took more than six-months to resolve. To date, 474 workers, between the beef plant and corporate offices, have been infected with the virus and seven people died, according to state data.
“This is a very important step to help these workers that have been through so much. Since the pandemic, they have been on the frontline working and lost coworkers and family members due to COVID,” said Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7. “There's a lot of emotion around this. Members are really thankful that this is finally happening and hoping for some sense of going back to normal.”
Cordova was also vaccinated alongside her union brethren. More than 300 workers an hour were able to get their shot.
Before administering the vaccine, clinic workers asked JBS employees to confirm they were not sick and had not yet received the vaccine.
Rudy Maldonado, an IT manager for JBS, smiled nearly the entire time as he sat down to be vaccinated.
"Not bad at all," he said after receiving his shot. "Super."
While the event marked an exciting day for many, the union and others are still critical of JBS for not better protecting workers earlier.
“There'll be plenty of time for analysis and recommendations about how to do better,” said Gov. Jared Polis, at a news conference later in the day at JBS. “But today is a day where the state of Colorado is partnering with the workers and with the employer, both on the same page, to really finally give a very high level of protection to all the workers at JBS.”
Corporate JBS employees will be eligible to receive the vaccine on Saturday.
“I'm really excited. I can't wait,” said Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA. “It's going to be a game changer for the entire state, for our nation. And hopefully we can get our arms around this pandemic and start looking to sunny days ahead, but we all have to still remain vigilant.”
Bruett said everyone who works for JBS will continue to wear masks, social distance and follow CDC infection prevention guidelines.
“There's a lot of interaction between corporate and the plant. So if we were to have an outbreak at corporate, this could easily negate the good work that we're doing here today,” he said. “We're trying to keep everybody safe — trying to take the most holistic approach possible.”
Currently, the plant is in the midst of two outbreaks, one that started in the corporate offices in October and another in the beef packing plant that started in November. In total, 165 cases have been reported to the state between the two latest outbreaks.
After the first outbreak, the JBS plant was ordered closed for two weeks. It later reopened without testing all of its employees for COVID-19 — something the previous Trump administration and the company had promised to do.
Daily testing still hasn’t been instituted for employees, something Cordova said is essential to creating a safe workplace.
“It's the employer and also our government needs to do more to protect workers. We need enforceable and verifiable safety laws and standards, as well as enforcement,” she said. “We need OSHA to do their job and come out and to workplaces and we need higher quality of personal protective equipment.”
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, fined JBS $15,615 for failing to protect workers, an amount the union considered paltry.
JBS maintains that its three-part approach to testing has worked. It includes testing symptomatic workers and doing contact tracing and testing of anyone they’ve been exposed to, plus testing 10 percent of the asymptomatic workforce every week.
“We do random testing so that if we are going to see the virus leaving the community and entering our plant again, we can get right on top of it and isolate and hopefully keep it out of the plant,” said Bruett. “So surveillance testing has been one of the most critical pieces of our intervention plan. It's really provided us a great opportunity to keep that virus out of the facility, which is goal number one.”
The plant is one of several among nationwide meatpackers to have had outbreaks, making the industry a symbol of COVID-19’s impact on frontline workers, many of whom are older immigrants to the U.S.
“This has been an emotional roller coaster for these workers, they didn't sign up to die at work,” Cordova said. “And [the vaccine] is another safety net that is really important for them.”
Editor's Note: Pool reporting from The Greeley Tribune contributed to this report. The story was updated to clarify the number of workers who contracted COVID-19 at the JBS plant and corporate offices.