DENVER – A second worker at a Greeley meatpacking plant that is experiencing an outbreak of the novel coronavirus has died, the workers’ union president said Friday afternoon, and White House officials are in contact with Colorado’s governor and a U.S. senator about the situation that has affected hundreds.
Kim Cordova, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7 union, confirmed Friday that a second employee had died amid an outbreak of dozens of cases at the JBS plant, which is Weld County’s largest employer with more than 6,000 workers.
Cordova identified the second victim as Eduardo Conchas de la Cruz, 60. She said at least 42 union members who work at JBS and eight non-union employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and five are currently hospitalized. But she said the union believes there “may be significantly more individuals at the plant who are carrying the virus but may either by asymptomatic, not tested, or afraid to come forward as they are not eligible for sick pay.”
UFCW calls for closure of JBS plant
On Friday, Cordova sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis, Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Dr. Mark Wallace and JBS Labor Relations Manager Matthew Lovell demanding that the plant be closed immediately for at least seven days to be deep-cleaned.
She also demanded that after a closure and cleaning, employees be provided proper PPE, grant the union regular access to the plant, provide reports on epidemiological inspections and other inspections and that the plant implement host of other spacing and cleanliness measures.
She also demanded hazard play for union employees and fully-paid wages for anyone who has to isolate due to the virus.
“We fully understand the seriousness of a plant closure and its economic impact. However, safety must take precedence over profits. As you are no doubt aware, a number of plants throughout the United States have now been closed because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus among their workforce. One death is a tragedy – two deaths at the same plant is simply beyond human understanding. With regret, we have no option but to conclude that the time for collaborative efforts has ceased. JBS has left us with no alternative,” Cordova wrote.
“Talk is cheap – workers’ lives are not. We look forward to your very prompt response and immediate action. The lives of Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Conchas de la Cruz, our 3,000 plus members at the plant and the general public in Greely demand no less,” she added.
Shortly after Denver7 confirmed the second worker’s death, Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump both spoke about the outbreak at the plant during the day’s White House coronavirus briefing.
Pence, Polis, Trump discuss JBS Friday as CEO says tests, cleaning will be completed Easter weekend
Pence said that at least 14 employees from the plant were hospitalized and that there were between 200 and 300 employees there who have been impacted by COVID-19.
He said he spoke with Gov. Jared Polis Friday morning about the outbreak and that he’d been in touch with Sen. Cory Gardner about the facility as well. He said the administration was working with both officials to push testing resources to the JBS plant, which was exempted from Polis’ public health order and has continued to operate 24/7 – to the chagrin of some of the people who work there and their families.
Pence said he spoke with Polis about having those new testing resources for the plant in-state this weekend.
“I want to encourage people in Colorado that we will work to support that effort, but I also want to emphasize that all the people that are working in food supply – from farmers, to meatpackers, to distributors, to truckers, to grocers – continue to have our gratitude,” Pence said.
Polis said at a news conference that he spoke with Pence about ensuring there was a plan in place to protect national food security and the chain of people – including meatpackers – tasked with getting food into stores and onto people’s tables. He said they talked about plans for the facility to continue operating with additional support and safety in addition to steps that have already been taken in conjunction with the Weld County health department.
“The Governor believes worker safety is a priority during this challenging time while ensuring the food supply chain remains strong. The Governor is grateful that JBS has agreed to close the plant while workers can be tested and the facility cleaned,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office said Friday evening.
The daughter of 78-year-old Saul Sanchez, who was the first known JBS employee to die of COVID-19, and others came forward to tell Denver7 about what they say have been serious failures by JBS executives in taking the virus seriously within the plant.
Sanchez’s daughter accuses JBS leadership of failing to communicate to employees when other employees tested positive and failing to promote social distancing for employees working in the meat plant, and she says the corporation failed to quickly provide personal protective gear for its employees.
JBS issued a press release Friday afternoon announcing that it is working with the federal government, Gardner, Polis and an independent lab to secure COVID-19 testing for all of its team members in Greeley. It will coordinate the testing over the weekend and says it is investing more than $1 million in the process. JBS said it would also deep-clean the facility over the weekend.
“We are grateful to Governor Polis and Senator Gardner, who have helped us procure the tests, and for all they are doing to protect Coloradans,” JBS CEO Andre Nogueira said. “We also thank Vice President Mike Pence for his leadership in prioritizing the safety of our workforce and the integrity of the food supply, which is a critical infrastructure industry for us all. Finally, we thank our partners in our local community, including Greeley Mayor John Gates and the Weld County Commissioners for their unwavering commitment and partnership in keeping our communities safe as we face this challenge together.”
President Trump also discussed finding out about the situation in Greeley Friday morning, though he repeatedly referred to Denver in his statements, after a reporter asked if the White House was prioritizing testing at food processing plants nationwide.
“You’re asking that because of what happened in Denver. Because in Denver, I said, ‘What’s going on?’ We’re looking at this graph where everything is looking beautiful and it’s coming down, and then you’ve got this one spike. I said, ‘What happened to Denver?’ And many people, very quickly. And, by the way, they were on it, like, so fast, you wouldn’t believe it. They knew every aspect,” Trump said.
“They had people not only testing – who did you see? Where were you? How many people did you meet? Were you out to dinner in somebody else’s home? Where were you? Where did this number of people come from? They are totally honored,” Trump added. “Now this just happened. I just saw it this morning. I’m looking at everything smooth, going down, topping out, then you have this one spike in Denver. It’s like, ‘Where did this come from?’ So, we’ll be looking at that. And we don’t want cases like that happening. This was, but this kind of thing can happen. This is very complex. This is a very brilliant enemy.”
Wallace said earlier this week that JBS was “a significant hotspot” for the virus and that he has told JBS officials they need to step up their efforts to fight the virus.
“The time for action is now. The time for seeking “prompt compliance” from JBS has long since passed. Half measures or belated responses will not suffice. With each passing day, more employees’ lives are at risk,” Cordova wrote to Polis, Wallace and Lovell Friday.
JBS issued a press release Friday afternoon announcing that it is working with the federal government, Gardner, Polis and an independent lab to secure COVID-19 testing for all of its team members in Greeley. It will coordinate the testing over the weekend and says it is investing more than $1 million in the process.
The Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment said in a statement the organization has had numerous conversations with JBS leadership, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the state’s Department of Agriculture. The health department plans to continue investigating the working conditions at the JBS plant, which is the largest employer in Weld County with roughly 6,000 employees.
“It is within Dr. Wallace’s authority as the health officer for the county to close any business that does not comply with his public health order and that does include JBS,” the statement read. “Concerns at the JBS facility include the proximity of workers to each other and employees working while sick.”
However, it added that compliance is the preferred solution.
Contact7 Investigates' Joe Vaccarelli contributed to this report.