After Meat Employees Die of Covid-19, Households Combat for Compensation

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After Meat Workers Die of Covid-19, Families Fight for Compensation

After Saul Sanchez tested positive for the coronavirus at a Greeley, Colorado hospital, he spoke to his daughter on the phone and asked her to pass a message on to his manager at work.

"Please call JBS and let them know that I am in the hospital," his daughter Beatriz Rangel recalled. "Let her know I'll be back."

The meat processing company JBS had employed Mr. Sanchez [78] for three decades at their plant in Greeley. He was one of at least 291 people who tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

On April 7th, Mr. Sanchez died as one of at least six employees at the plant from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. "My father was a very hardworking, happy, selfless person," said Ms. Rangel. "It's a great loss."

Now Ms. Rangel, 53, is in the middle of a new fight. She is one of several families of JBS employees in Greeley seeking compensation for a death caused by Covid-19. The company has denied her family's claim and at least two others, according to lawyers representing the families now taking those claims to court.

These denials, first reported by Reuters, provided an overview of the difficulties facing families of vital workers who have fallen ill or died from the coronavirus, many of whom are struggling to meet medical or funeral expenses .

"We only have a pile of bills and I think it really took a toll on my mother because my father used to be in charge of all the finances," said Ms. Rangel.

In the United States, more than 100 meat processing plants operated by various companies, including Smithfield and Tyson, have Covid-19 outbreaks, in part due to overcrowded work conditions. To date, more than 44,000 meat packers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 200 have died, according to the Food & Environment Report Network, which tracked the outbreak.

Workers' compensation has traditionally been used to treat workplace injuries – not deaths related to a pandemic that destroyed millions of lives and killed more than 200,000 people in the US. It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of individual infections, which appears to have given JBS the ability to decline claims for damages on the grounds that the illnesses were not necessarily work-related.

"As I understand it, JBS stated that the workers at the plant did not contract Covid," said Kim Cordova, president of the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union that represents many JBS employees.

"I think this is just further evidence that these companies put profit above people and that they treated these poor, essential workers as throwaway or sacrificial people for production or profit," she added.

Nikki Richardson, a spokeswoman for JBS USA, said in an email that "the employee's indemnity denial was issued by our third party administrator under the Colorado Workers' Compensation Act."

State data shows the Greeley plant suffered from a Covid-19 outbreak in early April. The US Department of Labor’s occupational safety and health agency announced in September that it had cited the facility "for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus."

Ms. Richardson said the quote was "wholly unfounded" and the company had challenged it.

"Trying to enforce a standard that didn't exist in March when we fought the pandemic without guidance," she said, adding that JBS spent more than $ 182 million on safety improvements, $ 160 million And that was in full compliance with the health and safety recommendations.

JBS, based in São Paulo, Brazil, is the world's largest meat processor, with net sales of more than $ 36 billion last year. Around 6,000 people work at the Greeley plant.

Several lawyers, familiar with Greeley workers' compensation claims, said the filing of documents and rejections posed additional hurdles for workers at the plant, many of whom do not speak English as a first language.

"It's a game of attrition," said Mack Babcock, an attorney who represents the family of Daniel Avila Loma, a JBS employee who died of Covid-19 in April at the age of 65 and whose claim for compensation came in June has been provisionally rejected. "I think it's immoral and I think it's bad."

Rosario Hernandez, 58, said her husband, Alfredo Hernandez, 55, could not return to his custody job at the Greeley plant after his illness and hospitalization in March.

She said he is home now, still oxygenated, and struggling with symptoms such as insomnia and a strange feeling that makes him feel like mosquitoes are buzzing around his head.

"I feel bad because there is nothing I can do for him," said Ms. Hernandez.

Your attempt to claim compensation from JBS has so far been unsuccessful.

"You have to come forward and approve the employee's compensation so that they take care of our bills," she said. "Because if we have to pay all these bills, I won't have anything at all."

Some states have enacted executive ordinances or passed laws to extend workers' compensation for Covid-19, or to put a higher burden of proof on employers who deny coronavirus infection was work-related. But in Colorado, a corresponding bill stalled this summer.

According to the Colorado Division of Workers' Compensation, at least 20 reports of Covid-19 deaths had been filed with the agency by September 26. Only one had been admitted to compensation.

Dozens of plants across the country have been temporarily shut down – including the JBS plant in Greeley, which has closed its doors for about two weeks before reopening on April 24 with new safety protocols.

On April 28, President Trump said in an executive order that meat processing plants should remain open so as not to disrupt food supply chains. When the plants reopened, many companies hesitated to disclose detailed coronavirus case numbers. That has left many workers and their families in the dark and unsure of how – or if – they can get relief after contracting coronavirus.

"So many people are affected by what has happened and so little is being done," said Ms. Rangel, Mr. Sanchez's daughter. She added that some employees may not know how to claim compensation or avoid filing for fear of retaliation.

“It would probably be easier if we went away and just mourned my father,” said Ms. Rangel, “but I don't think we would honor his life if we weren't there to defend or help people speak who can do not speak for themselves. "

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