Weld County health department letter: Meat plant workers felt a culture of ‘work while sick’

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GREELEY (KDVR) – Workers at JBS USA, Greeley’s meat production facility, reported feeling a “work while sick” culture to medical professionals who evaluated them for COVID-19 symptoms, according to a Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment investigation.

“These concerns expressed to clinicians…included managers and supervisors coming to work while sick,” said Dr. Mark Wallace, the executive director of WCDPHE, in an April 4 letter to the JBS USA director of human resources, obtained by the FOX31 Problem Solvers.

In the letter, Wallace detailed findings of the health department’s analysis of sick JBS workers during the month of March and the beginning of April. Between March 26 and April 1, WCDPHE discovered 14 positive COVID-19 cases involving JBS workers.

“Our investigation of JBS employees with positive cases reveals that 9 of 14 (64%) worked while symptomatic and therefore were contagious to others,” Wallace’s letter said.

The letter included a public health order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the plant. “Effective immediately no employee may be allowed to work while sick,” the order said.

“I think it’s important to note that we absolutely don’t have a culture of ‘work while sick’ at the JBS plants,” said Tim Schellpeper, the president of Fed Beef. “In fact, every communication that we have put out with our employees about the coronavirus we have specifically stated, ‘If you are sick, please don’t come to work.’”

Schellpeper said a video message was playing in the company’s cafeteria, instructing workers what to do, starting on March 24.

However, Kim Cordova, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, the union that represents JBS workers, said some of the television monitors that would have been playing those messages were turned off.

“I just think that JBS’s initial response was inadequate,” she said. “I think there was a culture of workers feeling compelled to go to work sick one, because of lack of information from the company and two, that they were advised that the shelter-in orders and all the other government orders did not apply to them.”

Wallace’s letter ordered JBS to require six feet of space “between each person working in any area of the JBS plant in Greeley.  If the components of operations still require employees to work at less than six-feet separation, JBS must notify WCDPHE of the specific safety measures taken to protect employees from exposure to air-borne infections.”

Wallace warned that WCDPHE would be conducting unannounced, onsite inspections to monitor compliance with the health department’s order.

“Be advised that failure of any of your company’s officers and/or employees to comply with this Order could result in penalties…including a fine of up to one thousand (1,000) dollars and imprisonment in the Weld County Jail for up to one year,” the letter said.

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