A fifth employee at the JBS USA plant in Greeley died Sunday after contracting the novel coronavirus, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7.
Four workers at the Greeley beef plant have now died, as well as one person who worked at the JBS corporate office. The death of plant employee Way Ler, 61, comes two days after JBS reopened its Greeley plant after a nine-day closure prompted by the spread of the novel coronavirus among employees.
The plant reopened Friday after the company installed a variety of protections for workers designed to slow the spread of the virus, and most employees will return to work Monday, despite ongoing concerns about worker safety and a lack of testing for employees.
On Friday, JBS sent the union a cease-and-desist letter alleging that union president Kim Cordova violated the collective bargaining agreement between the workers and the company by speaking publicly about safety concerns at the plant.
“In particular, it seems the Local has adopted a strategy of generating negative media attention and public opinion in an effort to unwind agreements made in the CBA and gain concessions from the Company as they relate to employee safety,” Matthew Lovell, JBS head of labor relations, wrote in the five-page letter. He wrote that the union was contractually obligated to address safety concerns through a grievance process and prohibited from taking actions outside of that process.
Cordova dismissed that allegation in a return letter Saturday.
“Neither Local 7’s nor our members’ First Amendment rights are checked at the grievance procedure door,” she wrote. “The grievance procedure does not reduce Local 7 to a status of mute and abject servility.”
At least 102 JBS employees have confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, although health officials believe the outbreak is larger and several hundred employees and their family members may be infected. About 3,400 employees work at the Greeley plant.
The spread of COVID-19 among workers is a problem faced across the meat packing industry, with plants throughout the country dealing with outbreaks as employees work in close quarters for long hours.
On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released guidelines for the meat packing industry. The measures include ensuring employees work at least six feet from each other or are separated by physical barriers, increasing hand sanitation stations, adjusting fans and ventilation systems, staggering shift and modifying sick leave policies to encourage workers to stay home if ill, among other measures.
The guidelines also suggest that in some plants, one shift each day may need to be reserved for disinfecting and sanitation. That’s the strategy underway at the Cargill plant in Fort Morgan, which has reported 15 confirmed cases and one death and has reduced shifts to allow for cleaning.
The Leprino Foods cheese plant, also in Fort Morgan, announced a five-day closure starting Sunday after a high number of employees tested positive for the virus. In that case, the company intends to test all plant employees, about 350 people, before reopening the plant.
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