Several hundred workers at the JBS USA meat processing plant in Greeley called off work Monday as a handful of cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed among employees.

About 500 people called off in the morning and another 400 did not go to work in the evening, said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, a union that represents about 3,000 JBS USA employees at the Greeley plant.

Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for JBS USA, said only 800 employees called off work Monday. He said that typical Monday absences have hovered around 500 since schools closed earlier this month but that yesterday saw an additional 300 people stay home.

The uptick in absences comes as at least six employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus, Cordova said. The union is investigating why the hundreds of employees decided to stay home Monday.

“I don’t believe it was a concerted effort by the workers to stage a protest,” she said. “I absolutely believe somebody may have exposed them, or they’re afraid, or maybe folks are sick. I don’t want to speculate until we get the information.”

Plant employees speak 27 different languages, she said, which can slow down communication. The union received the report about the mass call-offs Tuesday morning.

The union is pressing JBS USA, the Greeley-based beef and pork processing company, for more information on the call-offs and is lobbying for additional protections for workers.

The company put in place increased sanitation and disinfection efforts weeks ago, and started staggering shifts and breaks on Monday, Bruett said Tuesday. Sometime this week, the company should have the ability screen employees for high temperatures. The plant also “promoted physical distancing” by putting up tents to give workers more space during lunch breaks, he said.

“The health and safety of our team members providing food for us all during this unprecedented time remains our top priority,” he said in a statement, adding that the company also gave $600 bonuses to plant employees.

Cordova said JBS has discussed distancing measures such as putting plexiglass barriers between workers, but they had not yet been implemented.

“While they were getting ready to brace for all this, it just happened,” she said.

The plant employs between 1,000 and 1,500 workers per shift, and social distancing on the job is difficult because many employees work in tight quarters and use the same break room, Cordova said. The union is pressing for employees to be given personal protective equipment and is asking the company to identify the areas where the infected employees worked in order to determine how widespread the novel coronavirus is in the facility.

Eric Aakko, spokesman for the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment, said Tuesday that county health officials couldn’t confirm or deny confirmed cases connected to the JBS plant.

Weld County has at least 254 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and has seen nine deaths, according to the agency. There are more than 2,600 cases in the state.

The Greeley meat processing plant is an essential business under the state’s stay-at-home order because it is part of the food supply chain. But Cordova said plant workers were not included in recent rules issued by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, which guaranteed up to four days of paid sick leave to workers in some essential industries if they suspect they’ve contracted COVID-19. The rules cover grocery workers and restaurant workers, but not food processing employees, Cordova said.

“What the company is doing is, if someone tests positive, they are paying them their full wages,” she said. “The problem is there are not enough tests.”

Source: Denver Post