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GREELEY, Colo. (KDVR) — An employee at a beef production facility in Greeley has succumbed to the COVID-19 illness, according to his family and the union that represents thousands of workers at JBS USA.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our team member,” said Nikki Richardson, a spokesperson for the company, about the death of Saul Sanchez, 78. “We are offering support to the family and our team members during this time. Our sympathies are with our fallen friend, the family and all those impacted by COVID-19.”

According to Andre Nogueira, the CEO of JBS USA, there are 15 employees  – out of more than 6,000 Weld County JBS USA workers – who have tested positive for COVID-19. Although those employees work at various Weld County facilities, hundreds of employees at the beef production plant have recently “called off” work.

“I understand that people get scared,” said Nogueira. “What we want to say is: our plant is a very safe place to work.”

Nogueira said the company has stepped up its safety precautions in recent days and weeks.

Over the weekend, company officials said they implemented an infrared camera system that checks employees’ temperatures as they enter the workplace. They also recently expanded the cafeteria by adding additional seating options and an outdoor tent to encourage social distancing. They installed plexiglass dividers in the cafeteria too.

Workers who pack meat in close quarters received additional headgear that covers their nose and mouth, and some received face shields. The company also added partitions to separate tight workspaces.

“Some of it is more difficult to do because of the nature of the jobs,” said Tim Schellpeper, the president of Fed Beef.

“There are still a lot of our employees  – the majority –  that are in that facility every single day producing very high-quality products that all of us need,” he said. “And to those folks, we owe a great deal of thanks and gratitude for doing their part to feed the nation.”

Schellpeper said the company has also taken steps to produce videos and other communications to help its multi-lingual workforce understand best practices for hygiene and sick calls.

“We are asking if you have any of the symptoms, that you stay home,” said Nogueira.

Although the ill JBS workers make up only a small percentage of the total illnesses in Weld County, Nogueira says he understands why some of his employees are staying away from work.

“I think there are much more people that are not sick that stay at home by fear, and our job is to provide them a safe place to work,” he said. 

Nogueira said some workers have been asked to stay home if they are in a vulnerable population or if they’ve physically contacted people who have contracted the illness.

“If we ask them to stay at home, then they receive the full pay,” said Nogueira.

According to Richardson, the worker who passed away had been notified by human resources that “as a member of a vulnerable population the company would pay him full salary and benefits for the term of the state of emergency without requiring him to work.” She said he left work, on vacation, on March 20 and never returned to the plant.

Nogueira said workers who are sick and can provide a doctor’s note will qualify for a sick day.

“They always qualify for a sick day if they are sick.  If they are not sick, if they are just afraid, then they don’t qualify to just stay at home,” he said.

Schellpeper said the plant recently hired additional janitors to keep the hallways, cafeterias and locker rooms clean. They also added more hand sanitizer stations to their facilities and eliminated all non-essential visitors from entering the plants.