‘This could potentially be a death sentence’: JBS union president responds to plans to reopen plant

JBS meatpacking plant announces plans for 6k to return to work on Friday
Posted at 7:03 AM, Apr 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-23 09:03:17-04

GREELEY, Colo. – Twelve days after announcing it would close one of the nation’s largest beef slaughterhouses after an outbreak of COVID-19, JBS told its employees on Wednesday that they were expected to return to work on Friday.

Contact7 Investigates obtained a copy of a text sent to employees early Wednesday morning. The text read:

“Hi Greeley Beef: We are excited to see our slaughter team members at the plant on Friday!

“As a reminder, A shift will start at 6:15 a.m. Friday. If you are sick, please notify HR immediately.

“DO NOT COME TO THE PLANT IF YOU ARE SICK! Looking forward to getting back to work. See you soon.”

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Employees at the Greeley-based JBS meatpacking plant were told through a text they would be returning to work Friday, after the plant was forced to shut down for two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak that has resulted in the death of at least four employees.

The announcement for 6,000 employees to return to work comes two weeks after an outbreak at the plant led the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) as well as the Weld County Health Department to close the plant for two weeks.

“I think the workers are being sacrificed,” said Kim Cordova, the president of the union representing JBS employees. “I think that this could potentially be a death sentence.”

Since the massive beef slaughterhouse closed on April 10, four employees have died from the novel coronavirus, and recently released numbers from the state show 102 JBS employees in Weld County have confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Documents from the state of Colorado and Weld County obtained by Contact7 Investigates called for testing of all employees before the plant reopened. On the same day, JBS pledged to spend more than $1 million to test its Greeley employees.

Employees, community groups and the union representing employees all raised concerns about the decision to reopen the facility in the wake of the outbreak to Contact7 Investigates.

“This is a human rights issue,” said union president Cordova. “The lives of workers are important, and they should not be sacrificed.”

“They are afraid,” said Sylvia Martinez, the spokesperson for Latinos Unidos of Greeley, referring to employees she spoke with this Wednesday. “But yet, they have to go to work or be fired, they don’t really have a choice."

Contact7 Investigates also asked Martinez if she has been given any assurances that the plant is now safer for employees.

“It depends on who you talk to,” Martinez said. “If you talk to JBS, they are telling the public, yes. They are putting out press releases and saying such. But that’s not what I am hearing from inside from some employees who are concerned for their lives.”

A crew from Contact7 Investigates visited the plant on Wednesday requesting a tour to help show workers the conditions inside the plant. A security guard approached the Contact7 Investigates crew and demanded they leave their location outside the plant and on public property. The security guard aggressively approached a Contact7 Investigates photojournalist and threatened to break the camera.

At the gate, Contact7 Investigates requested entrance to the facility and a tour to show employees the conditions. Those requests were denied. The security team called Greeley Police. The responding officer confirmed to our crew that it was allowed to remain on public property. The Greeley Police officer also met with the security officer who challenged the Contact7 Investigates crew for being on public property.

Shortly after the interaction between our crew and JBS security, a truck driver moved an 18-wheeler in place, blocking a majority of the entrance to that gate.

“They don’t want transparency,” said Martinez in response to the actions of JBS security guards. “They don’t want the community at large to know what’s going on inside JBS.”

Governor Jared Polis did comment on the JBS plan to reopen on Friday during his regular COVID-19 update on Wednesday.

“Testing will absolutely be a part of going back to work,” Governor Polis said, “especially in that community -- testing to see where it is at for roommates and people who live (near the plant) as well as significant safety protocols at the workplace.”

Emails to JBS management regarding the decision to reopen were not returned. In fact, several emails sent to the company’s public relations team from Contact7 Investigates have not received a response.