GREELEY, Colo. — When local health officials moved to close one of the country's biggest meatpacking plants amid a major coronavirus outbreak in April, Vice President Pence and one of the nation's leading health officials pushed to keep the plant operating, against the advice of top local and state health officials, according to records and interviews.
The JBS Greeley plant, which employs more than 3,000 people, closed and reopened eight days later. Since then, three plant workers have died of covid-19, bringing the total number of employee deaths from the virus to six, according to state health officials. All told, about 300 employees have tested positive, making the plant the site of Colorado’s third-largest outbreak.
Among the sick JBS employees was Bienvenue Chengangu, 34, a refugee from Congo. He fears he brought the virus home to his mother, causing her death.
“The decision to keep the company open was a bad decision, and it means the government is also contributing to the damage that’s been done,” Chengangu, who cut brisket for the plant until the outbreak, told The Washington Post through an interpreter. “They knew how hard it was for people to work safe, yet we continued.”
In a statement, JBS said the plant reopened only after it implemented recommendations from local, state and federal health officials, including screening all workers for symptoms before they entered the plant. JBS said federal officials helped the plant by providing protective gear for workers and “expert guidance.” JBS also said it had not had a worker from the Greeley plant test positive since June 9.
“We remain committed to the safety of our team, our families and the millions who depend on the food we produce every day,” said Tim Schellpeper, president of JBS USA Fed Beef.
The nation’s meat-processing plants have been at the center of a politically fraught debate on when and how to keep major sectors of the economy functioning during the pandemic. Among the issues is whether employers should be shielded from liability for operating while the novel coronavirus is spreading.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky) has said limiting corporate liability is a top priority in the GOP’s $1 trillion relief package and must be included for the bill to pass. The GOP provisions in the Safe to Work Act would protect employers from a number of workplace laws and lawsuits, and help businesses defend themselves against complaints of exposing workers to the coronavirus.
The nature of work in the plants presents clear risks for workers, many of whom are immigrants, and their advocates complain that JBS and other companies have sacrificed employee health and safety for profits. Those same advocates argue that the low-income workers on whom meat plants rely often lack a basic understanding of their rights as employees, making them vulnerable to abuse.
Worker advocacy groups have filed a civil rights complaint against JBS and Tyson Foods with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alleging the companies’ failure to prevent coronavirus outbreaks among largely Black and Latino workers amounted to racial discrimination.
JBS said it offered a diverse culture “including refugee, immigrant, native-born and asylee. Anyone is welcome to join our team, and we are proud to offer well-paying jobs to many first generation Americans seeking to build a better future for themselves and their families.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said recently that based on reports from 23 states, more than 16,200 U.S. meat and poultry plant workers tested positive for the virus through May, and 86 died. Of those who died and whose race was known, 87 percent were minorities.
The six JBS Greeley plant employees who died of covid-19 were minorities. A racial or ethnic breakdown of those who tested positive is not available, although more than 70 percent of the workers there are minorities, the union said.
“Many of them don’t speak English and can’t read or write in English and feel that they have no other place to go,” said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 7, which represents JBS employees. “So they just feel compelled to stay in these really dangerous jobs because they don’t have a choice.”
'Work while sick' culture
Chengangu was already feeling ill on March 26 when workers on his night shift were told the plant had its first confirmed coronavirus case. His manager wouldn’t identify the person, or the person’s role, or the shift he or she worked.
“They just told us everyone to get back to their positions,” Chengangu said.
Chengangu pulled his supervisor aside to complain. The work was shoulder-to-shoulder, he said, and the company hadn’t yet provided face coverings. A JBS policy mandating face masks went into effect March 19, but a JBS spokesperson said the company encountered difficulty supplying masks for all employees because of “global demand and supply chain issues.”
Chengangu speaks fluent Swahili, serviceable French and broken English, but he’s confident the message delivered in his third-best language got across.
The manager said the plant wasn’t going to close, Chengangu said. They were going to wait for the government to do something. A JBS spokesperson said employees were not given that guidance.
At about the same time Chengangu was protesting to his manager, Weld County Health Director Mark Wallace was beginning a contentious back-and-forth with Chris Gaddis, head of human resources for JBS.
In an April 4 letter to JBS, Wallace chastised the company for having a “work while sick” culture and said the county’s analysis showed that 64 percent of workers who tested positive for the coronavirus had “worked while symptomatic and therefore were contagious to others.”
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Days later, as infection rates continued to climb, Wallace told JBS he was dissatisfied with its response to the crisis, according to emails and interviews. On April 10, a closure order was sent to the company, listing a variety of steps it would have to take before it could reopen. The letter was co-signed by Jill Hunsaker Ryan, director of the state’s health agency.
Gaddis immediately pushed back, sending an email to Ryan that said it was his understanding that “the Governor did not want this letter sent.” Ryan stood behind the order, and in an email the next day thanked JBS CEO Andre Nogueira for “voluntarily” agreeing to close the plant.
Meanwhile, JBS had reached out to the White House, seeking its help and intervention, records and interviews show. On the day the closure order was sent, Pence and President Trump both mentioned the Greeley plant at the day’s White House coronavirus briefing, promising testing resources to the plant.
An hour later, Nogueira publicly thanked Pence in a news release. Pence spokesman Devin M. O’Malley said other meat plants also were helped and that the vice president’s “efforts were instrumental in ensuring that Americans did not experience food shortages during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.”
The day after the closure order, Ryan wrote in an email to Wallace that she’d received a call from CDC Director Robert Redfield regarding the Greeley plant.
“JBS was in touch with the VP who had Director Redfield call me,” she wrote in an April 11 email. Redfield wanted the local and state health authorities to send “asymptomatic people back to work even if we suspect exposure but they have no symptoms,” Ryan wrote. She said she was okay with that if Wallace was.
In a statement, a CDC spokesman said Redfield “simply suggested” to local officials that they follow CDC guidelines that were being finalized at that time, “which allowed for plants to remain open if they followed certain steps to control spread of COVID-19.”
A state health department employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution from the federal government, said there was “heavy involvement from high levels within the federal government.”
“I was worried we would not get the equipment, supplies or other support that we needed to mitigate the outbreak at JBS if we didn’t partner with the CDC,” the state employee said, adding that this meant the plant was reopened based on CDC guidelines, not local or state guidelines.
JBS USA, the owner of the plant, is the American subsidiary of a Brazilian company whose owners entered a plea deal in Brazil in 2017 in which they admitted bribing bank and government officials to get low-interest loans. JBS is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for using the loans to buy all or some of the plants it owns in the United States. With the acquisitions, JBS became the biggest meatpacker in the world. JBS declined to comment on the pending federal investigation.
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During the outbreak, the company enticed employees to show up for work, even as the virus spread in the Colorado plant in March and April. It gave $600 bonuses to its line employees with good attendance records while many worked inches apart on slaughter and processing lines without the recommended protective equipment and social distancing.
The plant conditions contributed to an infection rate so high that the company abandoned plans to test the entire 3,200-plus workforce after about half of 200 managers tested positive for the virus in April, health officials confirmed. The company shut down testing — which federal officials had promised to make available to all JBS employees — and cranked up efforts with local, state and federal politicians to keep the plant operating, records and interviews show.
As Chengangu’s shift inched toward midnight on the day employees were notified of the first virus infection, he began to feel overheated in the cold warehouse. He later developed a cough and ached all over, he said. He then checked himself into the Banner Health emergency room and took a coronavirus test.
“I barely finished my shift,” he said, “but going home early is not an option.”
Hospital staff checked his vitals and sent him home later that day with instructions to quarantine for 14 days. They later notified Chengangu he’d tested positive, a diagnosis confirmed by the union.
More than 30 languages are spoken in the JBS plant. The multicultural group includes men and women from dozens of countries, including a community of African and Middle Eastern refugees who settled in Weld in the past decade.
The company has insisted it enlists interpreters to bridge language chasms in its communication with the staff. Yet the accounts of a nurse and a medical assistant, both temporary workers who performed health screenings in May and June at JBS, suggest the company is failing in that effort.
When workers told them they were experiencing covid-19 symptoms, the two women handed them documents on where to get tested and how to self-quarantine. However, that information was provided only in English, the two health-care professionals said.
They said they asked two supervisors if the materials could be translated so the sick workers could read the materials.
“I was told, ‘No. If we do it for one, we have to do it for all of the languages,’ ” said Sarah-Jean Buck, a medical assistant. Erica Villegas, a licensed registered nurse, said she was told the same thing.
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County records show that one of the conditions for reopening the plant was that reading materials related to covid-19 be provided to workers in their native language.
JBS acknowledged that the testing information is available only in English. The company said the quarantine materials, which are produced by the CDC, were originally provided to workers in English only. JBS now says it is giving workers translated versions, which the CDC offers in 25 languages.
The day after Chengangu visited the hospital, his 73-year-old mother, who lived nearby and babysat for his family, felt ill. She suffered from high blood pressure.
She’d been in the country almost two years, following her son to the United States. He made the decision to pack up his family and aim for refugee status after a brush with death amid Congo’s ongoing civil war.
He and his mother and sisters spent two years in Ugandan refugee camps before they eventually were granted asylum in the United States and relocated to Greeley, a community that has embraced refugee relocation.
Chengangu was frustrated when Banner Health, after several hours of evaluation, released his mother. The hospital told The Post it would not share medical records without written consent of the family; Chengangu said hospital officials have not responded to multiple requests to confirm his mother had covid-19, and he believes they are ignoring him.
He took her back to the hospital the next day, and again she was discharged and told to quarantine, he said. When her symptoms worsened still, the hospital admitted her a third time on April 6. The moment they dropped her off would be the last time she looked upon her son.
Under pressure from county commissioners and federal officials, county health officials allowed JBS to operate for nearly a week after the April 10 closure order, records show. Two weeks after the plant reopened, Wallace, the county health director, retired, telling friends and colleagues that he believed the plant was not ready to reopen and that his integrity was at stake.
“My concern was that testing of employees and their families for covid-19 hadn’t been as robust as hoped for or as was needed,” Wallace said in an interview.
Since the reopening, workers continue to complain that they do not have proper protective gear and cannot socially distance in some areas of the plant.
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Buck and Villegas also said the thermometers they used to take the temperatures of JBS employees routinely malfunctioned, sometimes giving the same reading for dozens of workers in a row. When they told their supervisors, they said, they were told to wave the employees into the plant.
The company said it would be against its protocols to allow sick employees into the workplace, adding that it is “extremely unlikely that our occupational health professionals would provide this direction.”
JBS also said that after a recent tour of the plant, the state “offered no suggested changes or opportunities for improvement to our COVID-19 preventive measures.”
On the second night of his mother’s third hospital visit, a doctor from the hospital called Chengangu and told him they believed she had covid-19, and she was having serious difficulty breathing. “They said, ‘We don’t think your mom is going to make it,’ ” Chengangu said.
Family members were able to speak to her by phone during her hospitalization, but they weren’t allowed to visit her. Much was lost in translation in phone calls between health officials and a family with no fluent English speakers.
On the third day, Chengangu got the call he dreaded most: A doctor told him one family member should come to the hospital to be with her before she died. He drove to the emergency room, where a protective suit, mask, face shield and gloves were waiting.
She died three days after her third trip to the hospital, as her son watched. Her death certificate lists “covid-19 syndrome” as the cause. The union said it is aware of two other refugee JBS employees who had family members in their household die of the virus.
Chengangu said he still hasn’t been informed whether his mother tested positive for the virus, an uncertainty that nags at him. He went back to work on April 27, 18 days after her death, as cases continued to mount at the plant. Chengangu now works in a packaging section at room temperature.
In May, his family gathered around his mother’s grave in a traditional ceremony marking the Ascension of Jesus 40 days after his resurrection in the Bible. It was an especially painful moment for the family; already confused and dubious about the circumstances of her death, they weren’t allowed to open the casket and confirm it was her.
The entire episode has damaged his confidence in his decisions. Chengangu, inspired to seek a better life in the United States after being attacked by paramilitary groups in Congo, said he left the country and its ongoing civil strife to escape cruelty and greed.
Yet, he said, “It’s the same thing here. I’m realizing America isn’t the paradise we believed it to be.”
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will probably challenge a key line of treatment for people with compromised immune systems — the drugs known as monoclonal antibodies.
Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.
Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.
Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.
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