WASHINGTON and GREELEY — A federal House panel overseeing the COVID-19 response has launched an investigation into multiple major meatpackers in the U.S., including Greeley-based JBS USA, over alleged failures to prevent the spread of the virus within plants.
In a letter to JBS Monday, Rep. James Clybourn (D-S.C.), the chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, cited estimates that almost 54,000 workers at plants across the country have been infected at work, and 270 have died.
He also claims that meatpacking plants have been a source of community spread outside of their walls, further intensifying the virus’ spread among a workforce that tends to be paid near or at minimum wage.
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Meatpacking plants were a point of worry for public health experts early in the pandemic as the cold, close environments that employees work in are vectors for transmission. Amid worries that the pandemic may have led to a shortage of meat, former president Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep the plants open. Clybourn’s letter to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration accuses it of failing to adequately enforce safety rules within those plants.
“It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans,” Clybourn wrote in his letter to OSHA.
Specifically, the letter to JBS says former employees at its Greeley plant claimed that leaders at the plant forced staffers to pay for COVID testing out of pocket, encouraged sick employees not to take time off and provided faulty equipment for screening out potentially sick employees.
JBS has two active outbreaks in its corporate office and its meatpacking plant in Greeley, according to state health department records, with 60 confirmed cases in the office and 96 in the plant.
Three previous outbreaks among those locations produced 309 confirmed cases and seven deaths, including six from plant workers, according to state data.
In a statement, JBS said that it welcomes an opportunity to share its safety protocols with the federal panel and said it offers multiple safety benefits to employees. Specifically, it claims that it provides unlimited protective gear to employees, installed social-distancing barriers and hospital-grade filtration systems in its locations, gave full pay and benefits to potentially vulnerable employees who wished to stay out of the plant and is covering all of the health expenses incurred by employees in its health plan who contracted COVID-19.
State officials ordered the Greeley plant to shutter for two weeks in mid-April after dozens of floor workers tested positive for the virus.
The panel is requesting that JBS provide several documents within the next two weeks, including all COVID-related complaints from employees, notices to workers regarding sick leave and safety measures and the number of employees at each of its more than 50 facilities nationwide who contracted the virus and ultimately died.
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