The meatpacking industry has suffered severe coronavirus outbreaks, in part because production-line workers often work side-by-side for long shifts. The full picture of how the meatpacking industry has handled COVID-related workers’ compensation remains murky.
Saul Sanchez died in April, one of six workers with fatal COVID-19 infections at meatpacker JBS USA’s slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, the site of one of the earliest and deadliest coronavirus outbreaks at a U.S. meatpacking plant. JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, denied the family’s application for workers’ compensation benefits, along with those filed by the families of two other Greeley workers who died of COVID-19. Families of the three other Greeley workers who died also sought compensation, a union representative said. JBS has said the employees’ COVID-19 infections were not work-related in denying the claims.
As more Americans return to workplaces, the experience of JBS employees shows the difficulty of linking infections to employment and getting compensation for medical care and lost wages. Tyson has also denied workers’ compensation claims stemming from a big outbreak in Iowa.
“That is the ultimate question: How can you prove it?” said Nick Fogel, an attorney specializing in workers’ compensation. Workers can challenge companies’ denials in an administrative process that varies by state but typically resembles a court hearing. The burden of proof, however, usually falls on the worker to prove a claim was wrongfully denied.
Under Colorado law, a workers’ compensation death benefit provides about two-thirds of the deceased worker’s salary to the surviving spouse and pays medical expenses not covered by insurance. If JBS had not denied the Sanchez family’s claim, that would have provided his widow a steady income and paid uncovered medical bills totaling about $10,000, according to his daughter, Betty Rangel.
“They don’t care,” she said of JBS. “They are all about the big profits, and they are not going to give any money out.”