The union representing 3,000 workers at a Greeley meatpacking plant is demanding better conditions at the facility after an outbreak of the new coronavirus that has sickened dozens and killed at least two.
The union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, asked Gov. Jared Polis to shutter the plant for at least seven days so that a deep cleaning can be completed. Polis says that will happen, along with testing of every worker to ensure they aren’t infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“We have coordinated very closely with Weld County health,” Polis told reporters on Friday. A spokeswoman for the governor said the facility would be closed for cleaning until Tuesday or Wednesday.
The situation at the facility, owned and operated by Brazilian-based beef company JBS, has become so dire that it’s drawn the attention of the White House. Both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence mentioned the outbreak on Friday during their daily briefing on coronavirus with the media.
The union says at least 42 workers have tested positive for the virus, including five who are hospitalized. JBS says 36 have the disease.
The union identified the two workers who died as Saul Sanchez, who was 78 but otherwise in good health, and 60-year-old Eduardo Conchas de la Cruz.
Pence said he has spoken with Polis and Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner about the situation.
“At this time, our team is working with the governor and working with the senator to ensure that we flow testing resources,” he said, adding that the Trump administration is “flowing testing resources” toward the plant’s workers.
Trump acknowledged the need for screening at the plant. “That would be a case where you’d do some very big testing,” he said.
Polis said the situation at the plant is a matter of national food security and could have impacts on the state’s farmers and ranchers.
“We have consistently asked JBS to take appropriate measures consistent with the Centers for Disease Control guidelines over the past several weeks, to little or no avail until very recently,” Kim Cordova, the union’s president, wrote in her letter to Polis.
Cordova demanded that workers be given personal protective equipment and sought assurances about safe physical distancing before they return to the job. Additionally, she wants hazard pay for employees and wages paid for any worker who must miss shifts before of self isolation.
“We fully understand the seriousness of a plant closure and its economic impact,” she wrote. “However, safety must take precedence over profits. As you are no doubt aware, a number of plants throughout the United States have now been closed because of the spread of COVID-19.
“Talk is cheap,” she wrote. “Workers’ lives are not.”
JBS says it is taking the situation seriously and responding with cleaning and tests.
“While the measures we have taken within our facility to improve safety have made a positive impact, COVID-19 remains a threat across the United States and in Weld County, which is why we are investing more than $1 million in COVID-19 testing kits for our team members,” Andre Nogueira, JBS USA CEO, said in a written statement. “Greeley is our home and more than 6,000 JBS team members and their families live in Weld County. … No matter what measures we take in our facilities, we must all work together to prevent the continued spread of coronavirus in our communities.”
The company said it is optimistic that increased screening and testing, in addition to employee temperature checks, will provide confidence to its workforce and the community “that this critical infrastructure facility will continue to operate and provide food for local families and the country during these challenging times.”
JBS said so far it has increased sanitation, promoted physical distancing, purchased more personal protective equipment for workers, removed vulnerable workers from its facilities while still paying them and required sick workers to stay home.