A labor union representing 3,000 employees at the JBS meat-packing plant in Greeley has urged Gov. Jared Polis to close the facility following the coronavirus-related death of a second worker there.
The death of Conchas de la Cruz, 60, from coronavirus was announced Friday by United Food & Commercial Workers Local 7. A 78-year-old employee, Saul Sanchez, died earlier in the week from the virus.
“One death is a tragedy — two deaths at the same plant is simply beyond human understanding,” wrote Kim Cordova, the Local 7 president, in a letter to Polis and Weld County health officials. “With regret, we have no option but to conclude that the time for collaborative efforts has ceased. JBS has left us with no alternative.”
A JBS spokesman said the plant will be closed for a three-day holiday weekend, as scheduled, plus Tuesday to ensure employees can be tested. The company says it is spending $1 million on coronavirus testing for its 6,000 employees.
During a White House briefing, Vice President Mike Pence said he spoke to Polis, as well as U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, about the Greeley plant.
“At this time, our team is working with the governor and working with the senator to ensure that we (send) testing resources,” Pence said. “At this point, there are some 14 people hospitalized. Maybe 200 to 300 in the workforce have been impacted.”
Polis was asked at a Friday news conference about the situation at JBS and while he declined to offer any opinion on conditions there and workers’ experiences, he did say he’s been in touch with the White House about the plant.
“My discussion with the vice president just ensured that he was aware of the importance of the plant to our national food security, to our farmers and ranchers, and we talked about plans to be able to make sure that can operate with additional support and safety,” Polis told reporters.
Cordova says she knows of 42 union members, as well as eight non-union JBS employees, who have tested positive for COVID-19. Five of them are hospitalized.
“Local 7 believes there may be significantly more individuals at the plant who are carrying the virus but may either be asymptomatic, not tested, or afraid to come forward as they are not eligible for sick pay,” she wrote to Polis.
President Donald Trump was asked Friday whether the federal government would prioritize coronavirus testing at food-processing plants across the United States.
“Well, you’re asking that because of what happened…in Denver,” the president said, seemingly referring to the Greeley plant 50 miles north of the capital city. “Because in Denver, I said, ‘What’s going on?’ We’re looking at this graph where everything is looking beautiful and it’s coming down and then you’ve got this one spike. I said, ‘What happened to Denver?’ Many (sick) people, very quickly.”
“I just saw it this morning,” Trump added. “I’m looking at everything smooth, going down, topping out, then you have this one spike in Denver. It’s like, ‘Where did this come from?’ So, we’ll be looking at that. And we don’t want cases like that happening. But this kind of thing can happen. This is very complex. This is a very brilliant enemy. You know, it’s a brilliant enemy.”
Cordova and the union believes the plant should be closed for one week and that deep cleanings be conducted during those seven days. The union also told the governor Friday that masks and other protective equipment must be provided to employees. Local 7 is also demanding hazard pay be allocated.
At his press conference, Polis indicated that cleaning and coronavirus testing for employees will follow, in coordination with the county health department. In a statement Friday afternoon, he praised the company holiday weekend closure.
“The time for action is now,” Cordova wrote to Polis. “The time for seeking ‘prompt compliance’ from JBS has long since passed. Half measures or belated responses will not suffice. With each passing day, more employees’ lives are at risk.”
JBS USA operates 65 facilities in the United States. The company shut down one processing plant in Souderton, Penn., for two weeks after several members of the management team got sick with flu-like symptoms that could have been COVID-19.
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