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Meatpacking Giant JBS Denies Workers' Coronavirus Claims

NOEL KING, HOST:

More people are in the hospital with COVID-19 right now than at any other point during this pandemic. Some people we know are getting the virus at especially high rates, including people who work in meatpacking. Employees of the biggest meatpacking company in the world - it's called JBS - are filing compensation claims. But they're being denied. Reporter Lindsay Fendt has been talking to them and their families.

LINDSAY FENDT, BYLINE: At the beginning of the pandemic, when people across the country were starting to stay home and social distance, Alfredo Hernandez had to keep going to work as a janitor at JBS' meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo. In March, he was among 291 workers there who got sick. His wife, Rosario Hernandez, says he hasn't been able to work since.

ROSARIO HERNANDEZ: And since March 28, he's been on oxygen till this day. It's taken a toll on his body.

FENDT: Hernandez's disability payments from Social Security are not enough to cover his medical bills. And JBS has denied his worker's compensation claim.

HERNANDEZ: It should never have happened if they would've taken precautions early enough.

FENDT: JBS says Hernandez's infection was not work-related. And it denies responsibility for the infection of thousands of other workers at its plants across the country. Many states require workers claiming compensation to prove that their injury or illness occurred while they were on the job. Debbie Berkowitz, with the union-backed National Employment Law Project, says meatpackers are particularly vulnerable to infectious disease.

DEBBIE BERKOWITZ: There is very little automation. So workers work side by side, eight to 10 hours a day. And by March, it was clear that COVID-19 was spreading in these facilities.

FENDT: Betty Rangel's (ph) father was one of six Colorado JBS workers who died from COVID-19. The company denied the family's compensation claim. But she says her father rarely went anywhere other than work.

BETTY RANGLE: I think they're so disconnected from the reality of how hard those workers work, the demand that's put on them. They're exhausted by the time they get home. They sleep, they go back to work. Where else would he have gotten sick?

FENDT: In Minnesota, 929 meatpacking workers have had coronavirus workers' comp claims denied. JBS owns the meatpacking facilities with the two largest outbreaks in the state. In April, Minnesota legislators passed a law requiring insurance companies to presume essential workers filing claims had contracted COVID-19 at work. That same month, the federal government deemed meatpacking workers essential. But Nicole Blissenbach with the Minnesota Labor Department says the law there only includes certain professions.

NICOLE BLISSENBACH: Licensed peace officers, firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, nurse and health care workers, correctional officers.

FENDT: Not meatpackers. JBS did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. But the company has publicly denied that they were negligent in protecting their workers from COVID-19. It says the wide spread of coronavirus nationwide means workers could have become infected elsewhere.

KIM CORDOVA: Their response to COVID was inadequate. And it was late.

FENDT: Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Colorado, represents about 3,000 JBS employees.

CORDOVA: The company did not provide proper PPE until after workers started to die at the plant.

FENDT: The union is pushing for an investigation into the plant. It believes that the well-being of the workers, who are mostly Latino and other people of color, is being ignored. Court challenges against JBS' compensation denials or working conditions are underway in Colorado, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

For NPR News, I'm Lindsay Fendt in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF THURSTON MOORE SONG, "THE SHAPE IS IN A TRANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.