Advocates, churches feeding families after COVID-19 outbreak at Utah meatpacking plant

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteer Sue Sanborn delivers boxes of food — donated to the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Hyde Park — to a family impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Logan • Sue Sanborn placed boxes of groceries on the front porch, knocked on the door and ran.

Sanborn was among the volunteers who delivered groceries and toiletries Thursday to households affected by the coronavirus outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in nearby Hyrum. She didn’t know if someone in the house on the southwest side of Logan had contracted COVID-19. So Sanborn retreated to the driveway before turning to ensure someone walked outside to find the milk, diapers, cleansers and other supplies on the porch.

Sanborn believes the government and JBS itself should be doing more to help families.

“It’s unconscionable,” she said, “the way the workers are being treated.”

The outbreak that began at the Hyrum plant in May has put perhaps hundreds of households out of work and rippled across Cache County’s safety net. The area’s health department said 287 workers had tested positive for the virus the weekend of May 30.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

More employees have been infected since then, said Narciso Delgadillo, who has worked at the plant for 13 years. He started experiencing symptoms June 6. He, his wife and daughter went to a testing center June 10. All three tested positive for COVID-19 and have been in quarantine since.

Delgadillo is due to receive his next paycheck Thursday but is unsure there will be one. JBS is asking for a note from his doctor, he said, but a physician wants $200 for a video call. Even if he produces the note, the 49-year-old worker said, JBS has told him he might receive only $300 a week in short-term disability pay — far less than what he normally earns in the plant’s packaging department.

“If we are considered essential workers, why are we being treated like that?” Delgadillo asked during a phone interview Friday. “Other companies don’t do that to their employees — only JBS.”

Help wanted

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteer Nicole Riggs, and her son Scott deliver food from the Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, in Hyde Park, to a family impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

The JBS plant remains open at a reduced capacity.

Nikki Richardson, a JBS spokeswoman, has previously stated that anyone who is suffering from COVID-19 will receive paid leave. Those who are not sick and fearful of coming to work will be given what she called “unpaid leave.”

On Thursday, Richardson wrote that Colorado-based JBS supports a variety of charities in Cache County and elsewhere and recently announced a $50 million commitment to help the communities where it has facilities.

As for whether there have been continued infections at the plant, Richardson wrote that “given the evolving nature of this situation, we aren’t reporting specific numbers.”

Many JBS employees have apparently decided the risk of contracting the coronavirus is too great to go back or keep working at the plant.

Richardson said the Hyrum plant is hiring.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Rogelio Felix-Rosas shows one of the rooms full of food that has been donated to St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, which is supporting more than 50 families impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

The Rev. Rogelio Felix-Rosas of Hyde Park’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church said some JBS workers infected other people in their households who are now missing work and paychecks. Felix-Rosas said the parish recently had to help one family pay the mortgage.

“The government should be a lot more involved,” Felix-Rosas said Thursday in a church dining and meeting room that has been converted into a donation and distribution center, “and JBS should be helping with house payments.”

By Friday, St. Thomas Aquinas had a list of 66 families to whom it was delivering groceries and other supplies. Other churches across Cache County are donating to households, too, or giving to congregations that are. IFA Country Stores in Logan donated a half ton of potatoes.

The area food bank and charities for immigrants and refugees — who comprise most of the plant’s workforce — are pitching in.

Matt Whitaker, director of the Cache Community Food Pantry, said demand there has mushroomed since the JBS outbreak.

Even before that happened, he said, JBS was donating pallets full of hamburger to his food pantry. Whitaker and his staff freeze the meat until it can be distributed to families or one of the churches or charities helping them.

“JBS has been awesome,” Whitaker said.

The Cache Community Food Pantry also recently received $25,000 in federal relief money via Logan, he said, and Cache County is using some of its federal relief funds to buy a van for the pantry.

How to help

Here are a few of the churches and charities assisting families harmed by the outbreak. Some organizations have said they prefer donors call ahead to inquire about what is needed rather than just arriving with contributions.

• Cache Community Food Pantry: 435-753-7140 or www.cachefoodpantry.com.

• Cache Refugee & Immigrant Connection: 435-915-6689 or www.cacherefugees.org.

• St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church: 435-752-1478 or www.stthomaslogan.org.

• Church of God Ebenezer in Hyrum: 435-245-3026.

• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Hyrum Stake: 435-232-3923.

Yet Lorena Rodriguez-Haro, the administrator at St. Thomas Aquinas Church who is coordinating much of the relief effort there, said too much of the humanitarian burden is falling upon churches and charities in Cache County.

Rodriguez-Haro, who worked at the Hyrum plant for two summers, would like it to close for two or three weeks to further reduce the spread of the virus, and for JBS to fully pay its workers during that shutdown.

“They’re rich enough,” she said, “they can pay people.”

Where’s the government?

Rodriguez-Haro also argues that state and local governments have not done enough communicating to immigrant families about the dangers and spread of the virus and the services available to them. She points out that the state’s coronavirus website advises people who may have been exposed to the virus quarantine for 14 days, while a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage says someone may be safe to end isolation 10 days after the onset of infection. The two numbers have created confusion, she said, for workers wondering if they should return to their jobs.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) With a table full of donated potatoes behind her, Lorena Rodriquez-Haro talks about the families needing food donations that St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church is delivering to people who have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

The Department of Workforce Services’ Logan office has been closed during the pandemic, Rodriguez-Haro points out, and many families impacted by the JBS outbreak do not have internet service at home to file unemployment claims online or seek new jobs.

“The government’s not stepping up,” she said. “Then the churches will.”

The Bear River Health Department, which includes Cache County, opted not to try to force a closure of the plant.

Its legal counsel, Cache County Attorney James Swink, cited an executive order from President Donald Trump declaring meatpacking plants essential businesses. Swink said the order wasn’t necessarily legally binding upon the health department, but the department’s board wanted to honor Trump’s wishes.

Chris Deutsch, postdoctoral instructor at the University of Missouri whose dissertation focuses on the history of the meatpacking industry, said the president’s executive order has limited meat producers’ liability and given them fewer legal reasons to safeguard employees.

The light shined on slaughterhouses during the pandemic is reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle,” a groundbreaking book that led Congress to better regulate meatpackers.

“I’m not sure that we’re seeing that dynamic still existing,” Deutsch said, “since it doesn’t seem like meat companies have to worry, then I’m not sure they have an incentive to have to care or have to commit [to worker welfare] because what’s the worst that can happen to them?”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteer Nicole Riggs and her son Scott deliver food from the Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, in Hyde Park, to a family impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Sanborn doesn’t belong to St. Thomas Aquinas or any other church. She just heard about the relief effort and decided to go to the Catholic parish to volunteer to deliver supplies.

She has one other way she plans to help JBS employees: Reduce demand for what they do.

“I was pretty much a vegetarian,” Sanborn said. “Now I’m totally vegetarian.”