GREELEY, Colo. (KDVR) — Since the COVID-19 pandemic began one year ago in Colorado, 474 workers at the JBS meat packing plant in Greeley became infected with the coronavirus, and six of those employees died.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined JBS in September for failing to provide a safe workplace. The company received the maximum fine allowed under law, which is $15,615.
Some employees and their families say it does not make sense that JBS is unwilling to accept workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19 as valid even though it’s holding a vaccine event for employees.
“It’s horrible for us the families, but because they are such a huge corporation it’s not surprising. They don’t care,” said Betty Rangel, whose 78-year old father, Saul Sanchez, died in April.
Rangel told the Problem Solvers she is “100 percent” convinced her father contracted the virus at work because no one else in his home became sick and he didn’t go anywhere else besides work.
“Two weeks before he was in the hospital he worked 17 hours of overtime and then the week that he was sick he worked 7 hours overtime,” shared Rangel. “He was constantly at work.”
Yet, when his widow filed a workers’ compensation claim, it was denied without an investigation, according to the family’s attorney Britton Morrell.
“So far we have not identified a single thing they did, other than they adopted a policy that they were going to deny the claims because there was a pandemic,” explained Morrell.
It was the same experience for Alfredo Hernandez-Aguirre. The 55-year-old worked at JBS for more than 30 years. He hasn’t been able to return since last March after spending nine days in the hospital.
“He said he’s sad because he can’t do what he wanted to do. He has difficulty going outside and walking,” said his wife, Rosario Hernandez. She translated for FOX31 because her husband primarily speaks Spanish. She told the Problem Solvers her husband’s lungs are so compromised he’s now attached to supplemental oxygen everywhere he goes.
“He’s angry because they denied the workman’s comp and he feels like the company just wants their employees to work. Once you get sick they just want to let you go and not deal with you,” said Hernandez.
Erika Alverson, an attorney who represents Hernandez, said she believes JBS is motivated by its profit margins. “It’s about money. It’s not protecting the people who protected us when we needed them. It’s a situation that is despicable.”
Under Colorado law, the burden is on the employee to prove where he or she became sick. Alverson said the standard of proof is not the same as in a criminal case, she only has to prove based on a preponderance of evidence, what is most likely.
“The likelihood of them getting it walking into a grocery store versus being in a closed environment where the virus is known to be in the air, it’s egregious what JBS is doing,” stated Alverson.
The Brazilian-based company posted a record profit in 2019.
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment won’t share how many JBS employees filed workers’ compensation claims, but it does share general statewide data without identifying employers.
JBS issued the following statement via email on Friday afternoon:
“Our third-party claims administrator is reviewing each case independently, and we are confident all claims will be resolved in a timely manner.”