Colorado’s Meatpacking Communities Continue To Act As COVID-19 Hot Spots
COVID-19 is closing down meatpacking facilities across the country. At least 15 plants in nine states have either closed or reduced hours in response to outbreaks.
Workers at these plants tend to be among the most vulnerable: refugees and first-generation immigrants. Government officials have deemed them essential, but some say they're not being treated that way.
78-year-old Saul Sanchez worked at the beef plant in Greeley, Colo. for more than 30 years. His daughter, Beatriz Rangel, said her Mexican-born father had come to the U.S. to support his family.
"He was so grateful to have a job no matter where it was, he was never going to fail," Rangel said about her father.
In late March, Sanchez came down with a fever and fatigue. Within days he was admitted to the hospital, and placed on a ventilator. With COVID-19 beginning to spread, Rangel felt she needed to tell the plant's owner -- Brazilian meat industry giant JBS -- about her dad.
"When I called to let them know that he was sick and to let the rest of the employees know that he was positive for COVID-19, I got no response," Rangel said.
By the time Sanchez entered the hospital, the disease was already sweeping through the plant.
More than 270 of its workers and their family members showed up to clinics with symptoms during March, according to a Weld County Department of Public Health investigation. Under pressure to contain the outbreak by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Vice President Mike Pence, the Greeley plant closed April 13th.
After initially commiting to test all employees before they returned to work, three days later the company changed its strategy, closing the plant for a 14-day quarantine and instructed employees to shelter in place at home. It set the reopening for April 24. The company has not committed to testing any employees at the Greeley plant before they return.
According to the latest state data , the Greeley plant has 102 laboratory confirmed cases of COVID-19. Four workers have died. It's the largest documented outbreak in the state connected to a single facility.
Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, which represents thousands of JBS workers, says the company's early response was unacceptable. Workers need to be tested to ensure the virus doesn't spread in the plant's common areas and along conveyor belt lines when it reopens, she said.
While the union has been in contact with JBS off and on during the crisis, Cordova said it's clear meatpacking companies were completely unprepared and slow to respond.
"When this came over to the United States, these industries that knew that they were going to stay open and that they were critical and essential, they should have had masks for these workers," Cordova said.
A spokesperson for JBS declined an interview for this story. In written statements the company has said it quickly implemented social distancing within its plants "where possible" and provided adequate protective equipment for employees.
"While we cannot know for certain how, where or when our team members were infected given the widespread nature of the virus, each case is heartbreaking," said JBS spokesperson Nikki Richardson, via email. "Our sympathies and condolences go out to everyone who has been impacted by COVID-19."
A new agreement between UFCW and JBS earned workers in plants across the country an additional $4 an hour through the end of May, and a commitment to provide masks, gloves and face shields. The company previously committed to $600 bonuses to employees in mid-May.
But Cordova said this pandemic has laid bare inequalities that food processing workers face every day.
"Most packinghouse workers do not have paid sick leave or paid family leave," she said.
An hour drive east from Greeley, in rural Morgan County, another meatpacking community is seeing a similar rise in cases. The Cargill meatpacking plant in Fort Morgan has confirmed 23 COVID-19 cases among its workforce, and one death.
"There's no escaping the fact that people are going to be standing shoulder to shoulder in sort of concentrated areas," said Colorado State University ethnic studies professor Eric Ishiwata, who has studied race relations in Fort Morgan for years.
The modern meatpacking workforce is predominantly Latino immigrants and East African refugees. Just as COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color in cities, Ishiwata said the same is true in rural communities where meat is produced.
The layout of a plant makes it a potential breeding ground for the infectious disease, he said. To churn out cuts of meat quickly, workers brandish knives and saws in tight quarters along a conveyor belt. By the hundreds across two shifts each day they share locker rooms, break rooms, and cafeterias.
With lower wages, car ownership among workers tends to be low, Ishiwata said. Public transit in rural communities is limited or nonexistent. That leads to carpooling, increasing the likelihood of exposure. At home, multi-generational family units live together, often grouping in the same apartment complex, Ishiwata said.
In the case of Greeley and Fort Morgan, it's also common for members of the same family to commute to the two plants and return to the same home.
"And so all of this, I think, leads to a mix that makes these workers really vulnerable," Ishiwata said.
Despite the risks within the plant, Ishiwata said he hears a desire from the workers to keep showing up for work during the crisis. For a steady paycheck -- the starting wage is between $16 and $18 an hour -- but also a sense of pride.
"They'll say, 'Look, we're coming from difficult pasts. We've dealt with hardships before. We're gonna get through this. And the most important thing for us, it is to get the paycheck so we can continue to support not only our families that are here locally, but our families that we're supporting elsewhere in the United States or even even abroad,'" Ishiwata said.
That sentiment rings true for Beatriz Rangel. Even in the hospital, her father, Saul Sanchez, was wondering if the plant needed him.
"He was the light and heart of our family, six kids, 13 grandkids, and now he's gone," Rangel said.
Sanchez was the first worker at the plant to die from complications of COVID-19 on April 7.