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As they rushed to maintain U.S. meat supply, big processors saw plants become covid-19 hot spots, worker illnesses spike

Several big meat companies failed to provide masks to all workers, some of whom said they were told to keep working in crowded plants, Post investigation finds

Relatives of Saul Sanchez attend his burial in Greeley, Colo., on April 15. The employee of a JBS USA meat packing plant died of coronavirus disease. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Three of the nation’s largest meat processors failed to provide protective gear to all workers, and some employees say they were told to continue working in crowded plants even while sick as the coronavirus spread around the country and turned the facilities into infection hot spots, a Washington Post investigation has found.

The actions by three major meat producers — Tyson Foods, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods — continued even after federal guidelines on social distancing and personal protective equipment were published March 9, according to 25 interviews with employees, elected officials, regional health officials, union leaders and federal safety inspectors as well as dozens of documents, including worker complaints filed with local and federal officials.

Because of outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, over the past several weeks Tyson, JBS and Smithfield have closed 15 plants, devastating rural communities and threatening the nation’s supply of beef and pork. Industry analysts say production is already down by at least 25 percent.

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Coronavirus outbreaks in more than 30 plants run by these companies and others have sickened at least 3,300 workers and killed at least 17, according to a review of news reports, county health reports and interviews with health officials and worker advocates.

According to workers, corporate policies contributed to the spread.

At a JBS beef processing plant in Colorado, employees claimed that managers encouraged them to report for shifts even when they appeared sick, according to workers and a letter from county health officials to the company reviewed by The Post.

At a Tyson pork plant in Iowa, local officials and workers said that some employees were using bandannas and sleep eyewear as facial coverings, while others wore no facial coverings at all.

And at a Smithfield distribution center in Indiana, three workers said supervisors told them — despite the science — that they were lucky to labor in frigid temperatures where the virus could not survive.

Workers at all the facilities said that personal protective equipment was not promptly distributed.

JBS confirmed that it did not receive masks for its employees until April 2 and did not mandate their use until April 13. Tyson said it wasn’t until April 15 that it started requiring that all its workers wear masks.

Smithfield said masks are universally available to its workers, in compliance with guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the company would not say exactly when they became available. Smithfield workers said it wasn’t until the past week or two. On Saturday, county health officials said they ordered Smithfield to close its plant in St. Charles, Illinois, until it can address issues related to employee safety and protective equipment.

“If you’re not in a casket, they want you there,” said Sonja Johnson, a former Smithfield worker at a packaging and distribution facility. “All they were worried about was making sure we were coming to work.”

JBS, Smithfield and Tyson all strongly defended their efforts to protect their employees from the coronavirus. Smithfield and Tyson said they started taking preventive action in February, including educating workers about covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. JBS said it took action in mid-March.

All three companies said they have stepped up sanitation, have taken steps to ensure social distancing and are checking temperatures as workers report for their shifts. All say they are now requiring quarantines for employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus and for those in close contact with them.

Government officials have repeatedly praised the meat industry for its essential role in the national food supply during the crisis. Vice President Pence has called the workers “heroes.” And even as much of U.S. industry pulls back in the face of the pandemic, meat company officials have argued that they have a special responsibility to continue operations.

“It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running,” Smithfield chief executive Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement announcing the closure of the company’s Sioux Falls plant this month.

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The companies did not receive clear requirements about what they had to do. The guidance released by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on March 9 said employers should offer surgical masks or respirators to workers who could be infected with the novel coronavirus, especially if they work within six feet of one another, a circumstance that is common for meat workers. But OSHA also said it would not enforce such regulations so as not to overly burden companies during the pandemic.

“This all could have been prevented. Workers are paying with their lives and their health because their industry decided not to implement basic safety precautions and OSHA decided to bury its head in the sand and tell workers ‘You’re on your own,’” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior OSHA official who is an expert on meat processing plants.

OSHA did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman for the Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, said guidance specifically aimed at protecting workers in the meat processing and packing industries will be released in the coming days.

JBS said to have 'work while sick culture’

Modern meat processing is a model of efficiency. In plants operated by large companies including JBS, Tyson and Smithfield, as many as 1,000 workers report for each of two or three shifts that begin in the early morning hours and sometimes extend through the night.

Workers who process the meat — carving it into chicken wings, tri-tip steaks and pork chops — stand two to four feet apart. Because of the mechanical noise of industrial processing lines, workers must place their mouths within inches of supervisors’ ears when they ask for bathroom breaks, because they have to be replaced immediately so that work continues uninterrupted.

The JBS beef processing plant in Greeley, Colo., slaughters 5,400 head of cattle a day. Sergio Rodriguez had worked there for 40 years when, he said, he began feeling ill on March 20. As he performed his duties that Friday — handing out smocks and gloves to hundreds of co-workers — he said his head throbbed and his muscles ached. The 58-year-old says he pushed through to his lunch break that day, then asked a supervisor if he could go home because he was sick.

He was needed, he said he was told, so he stuck it out. That night, he went to urgent care and was told to isolate himself at home, according to a patient summary from UCHealth Urgent Care. His temperature was 104, and within days, he was hospitalized.

Ultimately, he was put on a ventilator, and his family held daily vigils outside his hospital window, praying for his recovery. He left the hospital on April 18.

“No one from JBS has called to check on him,” said his daughter Crystal Rodriguez, 33, who also works at the plant, which employs more than 3,200. “He kept working even though he was sick, because that’s what you do at JBS if you want to keep your job. ”

JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said a company official did call “Mr. Rodriguez but due to his illness, we were not able [to] connect directly.”

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The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, Kim Cordova, said her records show that Rodriguez worked March 20. Crystal Rodriguez said that by remaining at work, her father exposed hundreds of fellow workers to the coronavirus because he touched their gear and their hands as he distributed work equipment.

In a statement, JBS said the company paid Rodriguez for his sick leave, starting March 21. The company would not comment on whether he had to work March 20 while sick, but JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said, “No one is forced to come to work, and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons.”

Rodriguez is among the more than 100 workers to test positive for the novel coronavirus at the Greeley plant, whose first case of covid-19 was confirmed on March 26. At least four have died, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Health officials in Weld County, where Greeley is located, have also expressed alarm about the company expecting employees to work even if they were experiencing symptoms of coronavirus disease.

In an April 4 letter to JBS that was reviewed by The Post, Weld County health officials chastised the company for having a “work while sick” culture and said the county’s analysis showed that 64 percent of workers who were covid-19 positive had “worked while symptomatic and therefore were contagious to others.”

“The rapid nature of the spread of disease among JBS employees is very concerning, and the exponential spread of this disease across an employee population of several thousand would be devastating for both the employees and your company, and would quickly overwhelm the medical resources available in the hospitals and other health care providers in Greeley and surrounding communities,” county officials told JBS in an April 10 order to close the plant, which they gave the company five days to implement.

Meat processing plants are closing due to covid-19 outbreaks. Beef shortfalls may follow.

County health officials also ordered the company to develop a sequestration housing plan for workers who test positive, use rigorous screening procedures to keep sick workers from entering the facility and implement measures that allow for social distancing. If they fail to do so, the letter said, JBS could be fined and company executives could face up to one year in the county jail.

Cordova, the union leader, said plant workers first received notice from JBS that masks would be distributed at the end of March — a few days after the first plant employee tested positive for the coronavirus. JBS said it ordered masks on March 19 and did not receive them until April 2. Wearing masks was not made mandatory until April 13, the company said. Face shields for those working on the slaughter line were distributed Friday when the plant reopened from its county-ordered closure.

JBS did not directly dispute the findings of county health officials. But in a statement to The Post, Bruett said plant managers encouraged workers with covid-19 symptoms to remain at home. In response to the county’s order, Bruett said, the plant has “enhanced daily symptom and fever screening and testing procedures for workers before entering the facility."

JBS and the union have announced a $4 an hour pay increase for workers at all of JBS’s plants because of the increased hazards the workers face. Hands-free temperature measuring devices are also being brought in.

JBS is the world’s largest meatpacking company, with its U.S. operations including 60 beef, pork and poultry plants across the nation. Employees at Greeley, echoing the concerns of workers at other plants, have raised a host of additional issues with how the company communicated with employees about the viral outbreak.

On March 18, the company posted a notice on its Facebook page — the place it usually communicated with workers — that union president Cordova said many employees interpreted as an appeal from the federal government for them to report to work.

The company message said: “The U.S. Government has identified the food supply as a critical infrastructure industry and has stated we have a special responsibility to maintain normal work schedules on behalf of the Nation. We take this responsibility seriously.”

On March 24, according to JBS’s Bruett, educational materials were posted inside the plant, encouraging employees to stay home if they were ill and providing advice on correct hand washing and social distancing.

However, copies of the posters provided to The Post did not include instructions to workers to stay home if they had covid-19 symptoms. Such educational materials also were not posted on the company’s Facebook page until after the plant was closed. Bruett said company supervisors were given covid-19 training in mid-March and were told to encourage workers with symptoms of the virus to stay home.

On the day of its first covid-19 detection — March 26 — JBS posted another announcement on its Facebook page, saying it would hand out a “FREE 5 lb. ground beef roll to every employee as your [sic] leaving work today. We want to say a big thank you to all of our employees that continue to come to work during this time to help feed the world.”

The JBS Facebook page for the Greeley plant has been taken down. Company officials did not respond to a request for comment about its removal.

‘Just a number’

To Sheriff Tony Thompson, chair of the Emergency Management Commission in Black Hawk County, Iowa, Tyson’s pork plant in the town of Waterloo was a covid-19 hot spot in the making.

More than 2,700 people work at the plant, which processes 19,500 hogs a day. When Thompson and other Black Hawk health officials visited the facility on April 10, they were initially satisfied with the company’s efforts after a meeting with management. But when they toured the facility, he said, they saw workers using bandannas and sleep masks, or some were wearing no masks at all. They also saw little evidence of social distancing.

“They acknowledged they had at least three employees with covid-positive tests, and then we saw this minimal amount of [personal protective equipment] and no real direct guidance from corporate and plant management on how to utilize it,” Thompson said. “Why on earth would they not be taking greater measures if what they’re telling is true, that their greatest focus is on their employee safety?”

Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart said in an interview that Thompson and Black Hawk County health officials who toured the plant on April 10 reported seeing inadequate social distancing and insufficient protective equipment.

Widespread demand for facial coverings has made it challenging for companies to acquire medical-grade masks for their workers. But Tyson said it began sourcing facial coverings for its employees before CDC guidance called for it. Since Thompson’s tour, Tyson began requiring and providing surgical-style masks for its employees.

Thompson said that local health-care providers have been flooded with cases from Tyson’s Waterloo plant and that the health department has had dozens of complaints from workers. Between April 9 and 18, Black Hawk County’s covid-19 case count surged by nearly 900 percent, from 20 to 192.

Local officials attribute 90 percent of the total to outbreaks at Tyson. On Monday, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) announced that 250 National Guard members were being activated to help with testing and contact tracing in the region.

In a letter to Tyson dated April 17, 20 local officials warned that the “outbreak at a facility of your size puts great risk to the safety and well-being [of] all residents in our community, especially the elderly and vulnerable.” The Waterloo plant was closed indefinitely on Wednesday.

But before the plant’s closure, workers registered a number of complaints about Tyson’s handling of the outbreak — including two complaints filed with OSHA and more than two dozen filed with a local nonprofit organization and a state senator, Bill Dotzler (D).

The Post reviewed the complaints but was not able to see the identities of the workers or verify the contents. But the complaints echoed what workers at the plant in Waterloo said in interviews.

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One worker said employees did not receive clear communication from Tyson when colleagues became ill.

“Everybody is just a number to a big corporation like this,” said the Waterloo worker, who also said he tested positive for the coronavirus and has passed the infection to his family. “When people started getting sick, I had to find it out from my co-workers, not my supervisors, who should be looking out for me.”

In one of the complaints filed with Dotzler, a contractor at Tyson’s plant in Independence, Iowa, said workers there got in trouble for warning colleagues about exposure to positive cases.

“I work around these people every day and could not consciously let them work in an environment where they’ve been exposed by one person, possibly more and not be told,” wrote the contractor who reported being reprimanded for informing Congolese and Mexican workers about positive cases. “I am now worried I will be terminated for reaching out to other human beings. (Something Tyson was not going to do.)”

The medical director at the Northeast Iowa Family Practice Center in Waterloo, Adam Roise, said that in the past week he has seen multiple patients from the Tyson plant who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Roise said the employees were confused as to how to notify the company about their cases and about when they would be allowed to return to work.

He said several of his patients also expressed concern about employees being told to continue working while sick and being confused about how to protect themselves and their families in the pandemic.

“We obviously told them not to go back to work, but they had not received any communication from Tyson on what to do if they did test positive,” Roise said. “They were looking to us to tell them what to do.”

In written responses to questions, Tyson said that it started addressing covid-19 concerns in January and that in March it was one of the first food companies to start taking employee temperatures. It also said that essential visitors to plants must answer a questionnaire about possible exposure to the virus before being allowed to enter.

“We’re working diligently to protect our people by taking their temperatures and are installing infrared scanners to help with this effort, we’re requiring protective face coverings and are deep cleaning our facilities,” wrote Hector Gonzalez, Tyson’s vice president for human relations. “Since March, we’ve implemented social distancing measures, such as installing workstation dividers and providing more breakroom space. We have also relaxed our attendance policy to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick. ”

Dotzler said he is concerned that Tyson is reassigning workers from closed plants to plants that are operating. He said Waterloo clinics have seen multiple sick Tyson workers with addresses in Columbus Junction, nearly 130 miles away. Tyson’s Columbus Junction plant was shut down on April 15 after more than 150 workers tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“Their actions have created a catastrophic event in our community,” said Dotzler, who also said he plans to request a federal Department of Labor investigation at Tyson’s Iowa plants.

Tyson denied that it was reassigning workers from closed plants.

‘They just want their food in and out the door’

When Sonja Johnson realized that the cargo of hot dogs she was unloading from a truck had come from Sioux Falls, she said she refused to touch it. That was April 15. The 55-year-old Smithfield worker knew that, weeks ago, the coronavirus had found its way inside a sister plant in South Dakota that is linked to more than 890 confirmed coronavirus cases. It is the country’s biggest coronavirus hot spot.

She also knew there were confirmed cases where she stood in a Smithfield distribution center in Greenfield, Ind. She hadn’t felt safe at the plant in weeks. Touching the boxes was too risky, she told her supervisor, assuming she’d be reassigned. Hours later, she said, she was fired.

“They just want their food in and out the door, at whatever expense it might be,” Johnson said.

Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s executive vice president for corporate affairs and compliance, said that Johnson’s account of her termination was “not at all accurate.”

“We would never terminate an employee for expressing concern about possible transmission of covid-19,” Lombardo told The Post in an email.

Perspective: I work at Smithfield foods. I'm suing them over putting me at risk for your dinner.

Two other employees at the Greenfield location, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired, also told The Post that they were disciplined after raising concerns about their safety.

One shared a copy of a complaint to the human resources department about their job being threatened because they declined to handle Sioux Falls product — just as Johnson had been.

“Since I felt I had no other option as to do the load or lose my job I told them I would do the load butt [sic] only because I felt my job was in jeopardy,” the worker told HR on Tuesday.

Johnson and the other two workers said that the company did not start providing effective protective equipment until this week and that management had allowed workers with fevers to complete their shifts after “cooling off” outside or in front of air conditioners. They also said higher-ups also told workers they were “lucky” to work in frigid conditions, claiming that the virus could not survive the cold.

Some employees also claimed they were given misleading information from management. One employee sent an email, seen by The Post, to the Hancock County Health Department on April 4 alleging that the employee was told that “by now everyone had been exposed” and that the person should come to work despite a positive coronavirus test.

In response, an official from the health department contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and recommended that the employee file a formal complaint with OSHA in Indiana.

OSHA and the Hancock County Health Department did not respond to requests from The Post for comment.

“I don’t want to end up like the Tyson plant that was recently closed due to the coronavirus, but I fear that’s where we’re headed,” the Smithfield employee told the Hancock County Health Department in the email.

Lombardo said the company “will not comment on hearsay” except to say that the conduct alleged in the email would be “completely and totally contrary to our covid-19 processes and protocols,” which have been in place since February.

“We have absolutely no motivation — in fact, we are disincentivized — to have sick team members reporting to work,” Lombardo said in an email. “We are constantly telling employees, in multiple languages, verbally, in print and via an employee communication app, ‘Do not report to work if you are sick or exhibiting covid-19 symptoms. You will be paid.’”

Smithfield, which is owned by Hong Kong meat conglomerate WH Group, has closed plants in Martin City, Mo., and Cudahy, Wis., because of coronavirus outbreaks. Lombardo said the company has added hand-sanitizing stations, provided more personal protective equipment, installed physical barriers on production floors and instituted thermal scanning. She said the company is restricting nonessential visitors, is requiring 14-day quarantines with pay for workers exposed to positive cases and has relaxed its attendance policies to “eliminate any punitive effect” for missing work because of covid-19.

Not having to go back to Smithfield hasn’t made Johnson feel much safer. She was in close contact with workers who tested positive, although she was never formally notified of that fact, she said. Right now, she feels fine. But she knows symptoms can take weeks to surface.

“I’m in that age group of people that are dying of this,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to leave my family and friends sooner than I have to because of somebody else’s neglect.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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