DENVER — A union representing workers at a Colorado meatpacking plant where six workers died of COVID-19 and hundreds more were infected will stage a protest Wednesday, claiming that federal officials should have fined the company more for its alleged failure to provide safe working conditions.
The JBS USA-owned plant in Greeley was issued a $15,615 fine on Sept. 11 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has called the fine for the multi-billion dollar company “insulting” and “ineffectual” but JBS has labeled the fine as excessive.
OSHA said JBS Foods Inc. in Greeley — operating as Swift Beef Co. — failed to protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus. The fine followed a plant inspection in May and is the maximum allowed by law, OSHA has said.
JBS failed to protect workers from getting sick and didn’t adequately compensate them for working under the risk of contracting the virus, the union said in a statement. At least 290 workers at the plant, including some supervisors, tested positive for COVID-19, the Colorado health department has said.
JBS did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the union statement.
The union’s Local 7, which represents about 3,000 workers at the plant, asked co-workers and relatives of those who died and were infected to protest Wednesday afternoon outside OSHA’s Denver offices.
In a similar case, OSHA fined Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota $13,494. At least 1,294 workers at that plant contracted the virus, and four employees died in the spring, officials had said.
In a statement, JBS USA said the fine “is entirely without merit” and ”attempts to impose a standard that did not exist in March as we fought the pandemic with no guidance,” The Denver Post reported. The company in August said it was investing $5 million to help Greeley combat the pandemic.
The union represents more than 1.3 million workers in retail food, food processing, retail sales, and health care.
The Greeley facility’s first known COVID-19 death on April 7 was that of a 78-year-old plant employee. The company said the employee was not at work while he was sick and did not contract the virus while working.
JBS temporarily shuttered its Greeley operations on April 13 to deep-clean the plant, install a new ventilation system and physical barriers on production lines and enhance existing social distancing protocols, according to a company statement. The location reopened on April 24.
JBS USA is a subsidiary of Brazil-based JBS S.A., one of the world’s largest meat processors. It also holds a majority interest in Pilgrim’s Pride, the United States’ second largest poultry company.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
About the photo: Saul Sanchez’s family helps carry his casket to the burial plot during his burial ceremony at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Greeley, Colo., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Sanchez, a longtime JBS employee, was the first to die of COVID-19 connected to the outbreak at the meat processing plant. JBS, ordered to close the plant through Wednesday, April 15 by the county and state health departments, decided to close the facility until April 27 after canceling plans to test its entire workforce for the virus. (Alex McIntyre/The Greeley Tribune via AP)
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