Colorado reported its first confirmed case of the virus on March 5. The company decided to require masks on March 19. By March 24, at least one worker was in the hospital.
Stacey’s daughter started asking her questions about what would happen if she got sick. She told her they would have to isolate from each other. Meanwhile, at the plant, workers were left in the dark. When management posted notices, some would be only in English, even though many of the plant workers speak other languages.
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As the cases at the plant grew into the dozens, workers stopped showing up because they were afraid of getting sick or spreading the virus. Management at the Brazilian-owned company told them that a statewide stay-at-home order did not apply to them.
“People from the plant were not helping us,” Stacey said. “They were saying the plant wasn’t going to close. We asked for face masks, and they said we didn’t have to worry because the people that got sick were not in our shift.”
Stacey said the company didn’t provide her with protective equipment until just before the county health department came for a visit, in April. The health department warned JBS that it wasn’t confident the company was taking enough measures to protect its workers and that a work-while-sick culture was contributing to the spread of the disease.
After the local health department ordered the plant to close, JBS completely shut down on April 15. Across the country, other plants were shutting down, too: By the end of April, 12 of Nebraska’s meat-processing plants had 588 confirmed cases, two Iowa facilities had 377 cases, and five Wisconsin plants had 389 cases.
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Soon, at least 20 meatpacking plants were shuttered across the country.
JBS promised that it would test all of its employees before the plant reopened. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged the JBS outbreak in their daily coronavirus briefing on April 10, saying that they were working to send tests to Colorado.
But the tests never materialized. On April 23, JBS announced it was reopening with less than 24 hours’ notice.
Four days after Stacey went back to work, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War–era law that allows the president to require industry to act in the service of national interest. The factories were declared critical infrastructure and were compelled to remain open. The move denied local health authorities, like the ones in Greeley, of one of their best means of preventing outbreaks in their communities—closing the plants. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a government agency tasked with regulating American workplaces, issued guidelines about protecting workers during the pandemic, the recommendations weren’t mandatory in practice, and the Department of Labor said it would consider siding with meat processors if they were sued by workers who got sick. On September 11, OSHA fined JBS $15,615 for failing to protect workers.