Colorado plant accused of negligence after COVID-19 outbreak
GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — Two women who were hired to screen employees after a coronavirus outbreak at a Colorado beef plant say the owners did not take screening protocols seriously and were negligent.
The two say in affidavits that JBS USA Holdings provided screening equipment that did not function properly, forced employees to pay for coronavirus tests and encouraged noticeably sick employees to continue working.
Hundreds of workers at the JBS plant in Greeley were infected with the coronavirus and at least six died, officials have said.
One of the women who signed the affidavit, Sarah-Jean Buck, is a licensed medical assistant who was hired as a temporary worker to conduct coronavirus screenings at the plant beginning May 10. She alleged that JBS was negligent even as case numbers continued to rise.
Buck said she quit her job after about two months when she was told she should have cleared an employee for work that she sent home for having symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.
Buck said in her affidavit that JBS supervisors told her she should have cleared this woman for work because the worker could not afford a $100 coronavirus test.
“JBS would try to convince people they were fine to go to work,” Buck said in her affidavit. “For example, if someone came through screening and reported having a cough, Cecilia (Borrego, a supervisor running JBS’ health office) would ask if they slept with the window open. If the employee said yes, then Cecilia would say that was causing the cough and they were fine to go to work.”
The company disputed Buck’s claims in an email to the Greeley Tribune.
“Despite unsubstantiated claims from a disgruntled temporary employee, our screening process has been reviewed and approved multiple times by local, state and federal entities, including the CDC,” wrote Nikki Richardson, corporate communications for JBS USA. “We conduct random, routine surveillance testing of asymptomatic team members to ensure our preventive measures remain effective. In the last month, the Greeley beef facility has tested nearly 400 team members, with one positive case.”
Another temporary worker, Erica Villegas, made similar allegations toward JBS in a signed affidavit. Villegas said she received little to no training and that nothing was done by JBS to accommodate non-English speakers during the screening process. Villegas said in her affidavit that though she is bilingual in English and Spanish, she was the only screener who was. She said other languages such as Somali were not accounted for in the screening process despite a sizable portion of Somalian workers.
Buck and Villegas also allege some screening tools were not functional. Buck told the Tribune the company’s temperature gun would register the same temperature for multiple employees in a row and would provide unrealistic figures.
“I would say to Donald (Shrine, head of safety at JBS) something to the effect of ‘This is not working, it is reading the same temperature for the past 10 people,’” Buck said. “He would respond something to the effect of, ‘Oh you’re on a streak, it’s fine.’”
JBS denied these additional allegations and said their recent coronavirus numbers are proof that the company is dedicated to their workers’ safety.
“We have had only two positive cases in the past eight weeks, with more than 1,253 positives in the county during the same time period,” Richardson wrote. “We are hopeful that the low number of cases among our workforce given continued community spread is due in part to the preventive measures we are taking in the facility an(d) the efforts our team members are taking to stay safe when away from work.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.