U.S. meatpacking plant workers mourn coworkers killed by COVID-19
In Greeley, Colorado, six meatpacking plant employees were remembered at a special memorial on Sunday.
"We gather here today to pay our respects and to honor our six beloved heroes who died while working to ensure that our communities were fed," said Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, told a small crowd of friends, colleagues and family.
The six worker worked for the local JBS USA facility. All died of COVID-19.
"I'm a registered nurse and I was there the day we had to shut the vent off my father," said Patty Rangel, the daughter of Saul Sanchez, her voice breaking. "My father was the heart of my family."
Those who live near or work inside the large facility are like family which is why coronavirus outbreaks here this spring struck home for so many. The numbers are staggering. According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, there have been more than 25,000 positive cases tied to meatpacking plants across the country with 95 reported deaths. Roughly 280 positive cases at the Greeley plant alone. And, now that the industry has resumed production, infections continue to rise.
"I'm furious, I'm angry, and I'm sad at the profound loss that we've had to endure," Cordova said.
Responding to the slew of cases here, JBS shut its Greeley plant to overhaul safety measures. It now touts its social distancing and staggered shifts, temperature checks and masks and physical dividers separating employees on the factory floor and in break rooms. As well as constant sanitizing. But some say it's not enough.
"They're going to have to do some reconstruction in those plants," Cordova said. "They're going to have to slow down the production speeds. The faster they go, the workers will continue to work closer together."
Paid sick leave for workers is also critical, Cordova argued.
"The company can do it," she said. "They're just going to have to spend some of their profit to make the changes that are necessary."
She said it's an issue with plants across the country. A number of JBS employees remain at home now with ventilator-caused injuries. The device was not enough to save Tin Aye, one of the plant's many Burmese refugees.
"It is so hard to talk about my wonderful mom," said Sam Twin, Aye's daughter. "I will always remember her… love her… as always in my heart."
Rangel remembers telling her father when he was first hospitalized:
"'Dad, they're gonna put you on a ventilator," she said. "After a week or so you'll probably get better, get back to work.'"
The job wounded up costing Sanchez his life. The hope in Greeley is that it doesn't cost any more.
"We have to do something for this problem," said Aung Kwah Toe, Aye's husband.