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Whistleblower Hired To Screen Workers For COVID-19 Exposes Meatpacking Corporation’s Oppressive Conduct

A whistleblower hired to screen employees for COVID-19 at a JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado, says she quit after a manager told her she was wrong to send a sick employee home. The employee coughed “so much she could not even talk.”

The company stopped paying for COVID-19 tests. A manager indicated even if the sick employee declined a test because they could not pay for it they should be cleared for work.

“I am not going to sign anything approving someone to go into work when they are clearly sick—that is not right and I will not do that so I quit,” Sarah-Jean Buck declared in an affidavit [PDF] signed on July 29, 2020 and published by Denver7, an ABC News affiliate.

JBS is one of the largest meatpacking corporations in the world and based in Brazil. It has a record of corrupt business activity and workplace oppression, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July, for the “fifth time in a year,” allegations linked JBS to “indirect suppliers” engaged in illegal deforestation, environmental offenses, and other crimes in the Amazon.

JBS was forced to pay $3.2 billion in 2017 after it admitted to bribing over 1,000 politicians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

WBUR noted, “Their misconduct — brought to light by Brazilian investigation “Operation Weak Flesh“—resulted in the [United States] and European Union banning the import of Brazilian beef, although in February, the Trump administration cleared the way for Brazilian beef imports to start up again.”

The corporation’s subsidiary, JBS USA, oversees 40 plants in the U.S., including plants where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred. At least six workers died. JBS was forced to shut down the plant in Greeley for two weeks in April, but safety for workers did not improve.

After the outbreak, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) advised JBS to screen all employees when they arrived for work. JBS hired Buck as a temporary worker around May 10 to take temperatures of employees when they arrived at the JBS plant.

Her job was to take temperatures under a “tent” outside the plant. It was a “tarp on metal stands” that did not control air flow and did not allow for social distancing among workers. One of the metal poles nearly fell on an employee. It was also filthy, and there were mosquitos.

“I do not believe JBS had any interest in ensuring accurate screening. We raised issues all the time and none of it mattered to JBS,” Buck contended.

“JBS would try to convince people they were fine to go to work. For example, if someone came through screening and reported having a cough, Cecilia [head of health services] would ask if they slept with their window open. If the employee said yes, then Cecilia would say that was causing the cough, and they were fine to go to work.”

JBS Stops Paying For COVID-19 Tests

Buck recalled, “One day, I received a text [that] JBS was not going to pay for COVID-19 tests anymore. The employees needed to pay with insurance or the cash price of $100.”

“JBS put it on us to explain to employees the tests would not be paid any longer. These are employees who are saying they do not feel well – and then they change their mind once they hear they need to pay, saying some excuse like it is just my sinuses acting up,” Buck added.

“We were told to threaten them with no pay,” Buck told Denver7. She said, “I even had one guy one time try to tell me he was sick, and I called for an interpreter, and they said, ‘no, just send him to work. We don’t have time to interpret right now.’”

There are around 6,000 workers employed at the Greeley plant. Many of them are immigrants from Latin America or refugees from countries like Somalia and Myanmar. “More than one-half (51.5 percent) of frontline meatpacking workers are immigrants,” according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR).

The Food and Environment Reporting Network added, “Roughly half of those immigrants are undocumented. Often with limited English skills—at the Greeley plant alone there are roughly 30 languages spoken at any one time—they find themselves relegated to one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.”

But all the signs about COVID-19 safety measures, as well as the screenings, at the Greeley plant are in English.

Joking About The Failure To Screen Workers For COVID-19

According to Buck, “large groups of employees would enter the plant without being tested. One time, the computer for the thermal scanner was not working. JBS was aware but said there was nothing they could do and sent people in.”

“They even joked about it later, saying casually ‘no one this morning got [their] temperature tested.’ Another time, Donald [head of safety] told me I could begin my shift at 4, and no one was tested who arrived before then.”

JBS management did not care if the temperature gun or thermal scanner was working. When the gun would register the same temperature for “many people in a row,” Buck would tell the head of safety it was not working.” The head of safety would brush it off, “Oh you’re on a streak. It’s fine.” This consistently happened during the two months she worked at the plant.

“My final week at JBS, around mid July, the first digit on the temperature gun would not display. I accidentally broke the gun when I dropped it on the ground. It had lines on the screen, but should not show you the full number.”

As Buck described, “You might see .3, but you wouldn’t know if the temperature was 100.3 or 97.3. JBS would not replace it because Cecilia thought it was sufficient that you could kind of see the temperature reading. But it was broken. I know it was broken because I broke it.”

‘If We Do It For One, We Have To Do It For All’

A second whistleblower, Erica Villegas, was hired as a temporary worker and observed similar examples of abuse and negligence by JBS management.

“There was one woman who told me she did not understand,” according to Villegas. “I asked her if anyone at her home could help but she said no. Cecilia was nearby so I asked her and she said, ‘No, because if we do it for one, we have to do it for all.’”

“The employee was told to go home and asked if she was going to get paid for the day. Cecilia said only if you get a positive test result.”

It is the responsibility of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce workplace safety regulations when corporations like JBS routinely ignore or disregard them. However, OSHA has systematically failed to investigate whistleblower complaints like the complaints from Buck and Villegas.

OSHA issued a measly and insulting $15,615 fine against JBS after they allowed a COVID-19 outbreak to occur at the Greeley plant.

Six other plants have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks: Souderton, Pennsylvania, Plainwell, Michigan, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Cactus, Texas, Worthington, Minnesota, and Grand Island Nebraska.

As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer in May, “Enock Benjamin, 70, a union steward from northeast Philadelphia, worked at JBS’s Souderton slaughterhouse, and died on April 3 from respiratory failure brought on by the pandemic virus, according to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office.”

Lawyers for the deceased union steward filed a lawsuit contending “JBS failed to protect workers with masks and other safety measures at the 1,400-employee meat-processing complex, and instead tacked onto the production schedule a ‘Saturday kill’ program in March to satisfy demand in the ‘public panic purchases of ground meat.’”

“By choosing profits over safety, JBS demonstrated a reckless disregard to the rights and safety of others,” the suit claimed.

Seventy-eight year-old Saul Sanchez “left home only to work on the fabrication line, where cattle carcasses are sliced into cuts of beef,” at the Greeley plant. Sanchez also attended “his church, with its five-person congregation, said his daughter, Betty Rangel. She said no one else became infected in the family or at Bible Missionary Church, which could not be reached for comment.”

Sanchez was one of the six employees to die from COVID-19. Reuters reported that JBS denied his “family’s application for workers’ compensation benefits, along with those filed by the families of two other Greeley workers who died of COVID-19.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."