FORT MORGAN — On the day coronavirus ended his life, Juan Marin summoned his pride for one last time.
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Fuerte, his adult children said, using the Spanish word for strong to describe him. They also called him a “party animal.” They called him a hard worker and said he had the calloused hands and tough fingernails to prove it.
Early on the morning of April 18, however, the 64-year-old beef plant worker from El Salvador was spitting up blood and struggling to catch his breath. He looked lost as he sat on a toilet trying to collect himself. He needed medical attention.
Before heading to the hospital he wanted to shave and shower. Coronavirus had other plans.
Marin began to shake. He was no longer lucid. By the time paramedics arrived at his home in Fort Morgan, just down the road from the Cargill Meat Solutions plant where he worked for 24 years, it was too late.
Marin died in his living room, surrounded by medical equipment that could not revive him.
“The truth is that when the paramedics arrived he had already had his last breath,” Carlos Marin, Juan’s son, said in an interview last month.
A few days after he died, test results came back showing that he had COVID-19.
Marin is among the nearly 100 employees at the Cargill plant in Fort Morgan who have fallen ill with coronavirus and one of four who have died. Carlos and his sister Carolina work at the plant, too. So does Carolina’s husband. All three of them got sick but have recovered, returning to work just weeks after Marin’s death.
Passing by the area where he worked preparing cattle to be processed is particularly heart-wrenching.
Unions representing thousands of beef plant employees in Fort Morgan and the JBS meat packing facility in Greeley have been pushing for better safeguards and protective equipment for workers who are considered essential. They want the government to step in and issue mandates.
The Cargill and JBS plants have seen two of the worst outbreaks of coronavirus in Colorado, even drawing the attention of the White House.
It appears the spread of the disease at the plants has mostly subsided. But the painful aftershocks of the outbreaks are still being felt weeks later. Immigrant workers are the backbone of the American food supply, making Juan Marin emblematic of the people put at risk by simply showing up at their jobs.
Juan Marin came to the United States in 1990 to find work and escape the civil war that was ravishing El Salvador.
“He came to get better opportunities,” Carlos said.
At first, he landed in California. But he moved to Fort Morgan in 1996 to join a relative and work at the beef plant. He found a community of people from his tiny hometown of San Ildefonso, in south-central El Salvador.
Marin, who was a permanent U.S. resident, fell in love with Fort Morgan. He liked being able to stay within his tight circle of family and friends. The quiet life in the small Eastern Plains town suited him, his children say.
Marin would send money back to El Salvador to pay for Carlos and his daughter, Carolina, to eat and get an education. “Cada mes,” Carlos said, Spanish for every month.
Marin even had a saying for his adopted home: “The people who drink the water from Fort Morgan always come back to Fort Morgan.”
He loved Fort Morgan so much that he bought a house, which he shared with his two adult children and their spouses. It’s within walking distance of the Cargill plant and not far from the tracks where trains rumble through town. It is a little slice of the American Dream.
The one-story home is shaded by an aspen tree and pines. Inside, Marin’s dog, Charlie, runs around and barks at visitors. The backyard is large and grassy.
On the weekends, the backyard was for gathering. Marin would work the grill, making carne asada, and hosting large groups of relatives and friends. He liked Modelo beer and tequila.
“Every weekend we got a party over there,” Carlos said. “He really loved to party.”
But in early April he started feeling unwell. By April 8, a temperature scanner set up at the Cargill facility flagged him for having a fever
“They sent him home,” Carlos said. Marin then went to the hospital for an evaluation.
“They never did a test,” Carlos said. “They just said he’s presumed positive (for COVID-19)” and sent him home with instructions to take Tylenol.
At first the symptoms weren’t too bad: A dry cough, a headache, some pain in his ear.
“He was feeling better. He was getting better,” Carlos said. “He’s, like, one of those strong people. Even when he feels something, he doesn’t acknowledge it, really.”
“We told him, ‘Call us if you feel bad,’” he added. “He never did.”
By April 18, Juan Marin was dead.
There’s no way to know for sure that Juan Marin contracted the coronavirus at the Cargill plant. But people who worked near him in the facility also fell ill, including another man who died, Marin’s children say.
And Marin apparently understood the risks. His children said he was nervous about being in the facility given the nonstop, scary news about coronavirus. Being older and with high blood pressure, he worried about falling victim to the disease.
“He was afraid of getting sick,” Carlos said. He had good reason to be anxious. Fort Morgan has had among the state’s highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate and dozens of people have died after contracting COVID-19.
A spokesman for Cargill, in a statement to The Colorado Sun, called Juan Marin’s death a “tragic loss” and said the company is “deeply saddened.”
“We have been in contact with his family to offer our heartfelt condolences and support, and have followed up to ensure they are aware of the benefits available to them,” the spokesman, Daniel Sullivan, said in a written statement. “ At Cargill, we take seriously our responsibility to feed the world. As essential workers, our employees are on the frontlines of delivering food to people across our communities amid the COVID-19 crisis. But during this pandemic, that responsibility must be balanced with our first priority — our employees’ health and safety.”
Cargill says it is committed to implementing best health practices as they are identified to protect its employees. That includes screening, including temperature checks, for all employees as they enter the Fort Morgan meatpacking plant. The company is also prohibiting all unnecessary visitors from entering the facility.
The plant now has increased spacing in break rooms and protective barriers on the production floor, wherever possible.
“We are committed to keeping our employees safe,” Sullivan said.
Teamsters Local 455, the union representing the roughly 2,000 people who work at the plant, acknowledged Cargill has taken steps to protect its employees. “The company did get on the ball early on,” said Mario Balderas, a business agent with the union.
He’d still like to see local regulations offering more safeguards for workers in Fort Morgan and at other packing plants in Colorado elsewhere in the U.S., which have been hot spots for the spread of COVID-19. Unions say asking companies to follow guidelines from the federal government isn’t enough. There needs to be an enforcement mechanism.
Balderas also worries that it will be increasingly difficult for employees at the Fort Morgan plant to follow safety protocols in the summer heat. Mask-wearing when it’s scorching hot outside will be hard, he said.
Carolina and Carlos returned to the beef plant within a month, rising early in the morning to go to work packing meat and in maintenance, respectively. They were given two weeks of paid leave for quarantine and then a few bereavement days.
“They told us they would only pay us for those two weeks and then if we wanted to stay away for longer that time wasn’t going to be paid,” Carolina said.
Carlos took three weeks off because he didn’t feel healthy enough to return. His bout with the coronavirus was pretty rough. “Sometimes I feel tired just to walk,” he said.
“I didn’t want to be weak when I went back to work,” he said. “I didn’t want to get sick again.”
In Marin’s bedroom, his children have created a memorial to their father on a small table beside his mattress. His ashes rest in a box in front of a picture of Marin as a younger man. In front of the box sits a Bible. Flowers adorn the base of the tribute.
In the backyard, the patriarch’s clothes and bedding from the days before he died have been gathered into plastic bags and placed on the porch.
The Cargill plant has become an emotional place for both of Marin’s adult children. After more than two decades working there, their father had become a fixture.
“Sorry for your loss,” coworkers say.
It’s a loss that’s difficult to escape.
Carlos, choking back tears that stained a surgical mask he was wearing, recounted waving hello to his father each time he passed the area where he worked. Going there now brings him anxiety.
Carolina’s lunch break would overlap with Marin’s and each day they would share a moment or two together.
“I would pass by the table where he would sit and check in,” she said.
Carolina, 38, and Carlos, 36, came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 2015 to escape gang violence, which claimed their half sister’s life. Their journey to America wasn’t unlike their father’s.
Now, they are trying to figure out a way forward. In Fort Morgan, the Cargill plant is one of the main employers, and other opportunities are limited.
“It’s our livelihood here,” Carlos said.
Marin wanted to be buried in El Salvador, where he visited annually, but the complications of transporting bodies of coronavirus victims have made that impossible. Instead, he was cremated.
Carlos and Carolina plan to return their father’s ashes to El Salvador sometime when it’s safer to make the journey after the pandemic has subsided, accompanying Marin on one last trip back home.