Josue Rivera Pabon earned $16 an hour removing tongues from the heads of cows at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum.
Those tasks didn’t make him ill. COVID-19 did that — twice, he says.
The outbreak that spread through the meatpacking plant also found its way into Rivera’s home, infecting his daughter and a brother who lives with him.
He resigned from JBS in August rather than risk getting sick again. Now he’s behind on his bills.
JBS “offered no psychological help or financial help,” Rivera said.
About 385 employees of the plant tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Bear River Health Department, which has also said no deaths have been linked to the outbreak. Workers like Rivera say they are still suffering the consequences in the form of lost wages and health problems.
The plant’s owner, JBS USA, earlier this month announced it would give $1.7 million to charities and service organizations in and around Hyrum. Some of those who were sickened are wondering why the money can’t go to them directly.
Nikki Richardson, a spokeswoman for JBS USA, said in an email Thursday that the company since February has spent “$9 million in wage increases and thank-you bonuses to our team members in Hyrum.”
Sickened workers who miss extended time from work can also receive $425 a week in short-term disability payments, Richardson said. Many of the workers at the Hyrum plant are immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia. The benefit information is communicated in multiple languages, Richardson said.
Yet some employees say they have gone without paychecks for time they missed due to the virus. One employee told The Salt Lake Tribune he began to feel sick in early June and missed six weeks of work. The man, who asked not to be identified because he and family still work at the beef plant, said he was paid for two weeks.
That’s not necessarily the worst part. After nine days of symptoms, his oxygen levels dropped. His family took him to Logan Regional Hospital. “When I woke up, I was in Salt Lake,” the man said in an interview. “At the end, they told me they had flown me by helicopter because I was so seriously ill.”
He woke up in the strange hospital after being intubated for a few days. In all, he spent 13 days in a hospital.
“I’m traumatized,” the man said. “It was something horrible.”
He went back to work in the plant in August. He is over age 50 and says he still has trouble breathing at times and tires more easily than he used to. He lives with six people; he says everyone in the house got sick, too, though not as severely as he did.
Like other workers who spoke to The Tribune, he blames JBS for not doing more to protect him. A woman who asked not to be identified because her parents work at JBS said some employees were told to come to the plant even though they felt sick.
Her father contracted COVID-19, she said.
“It was hell for all of us,” the woman said. “We didn’t know anything about him. It was terrible. He was in the ICU for eight days, I believe. And then after that, he went to a recovery room for two days.”
The family members have received a bill telling them to pay $5,000 toward their deductible, she said. She said she asked JBS whether it would pay the sum and was told no.
Bear River Health Department spokesman Joshua Greer said in June the department had heard reports of sick employees being called into work. Richardson, the JBS spokeswoman, has denied anyone ill was made to work.
Angie White, epidemiologist at Bear River Health Department, told The Tribune in July that before the pandemic arrived in Utah, JBS administrators came to her to review their plan for keeping the coronavirus out of the plant. Once the outbreak began, JBS assisted public health workers by providing the names and contact information of possibly infected co-workers so contact tracers could assess whether those employees were sick or needed to be quarantined.
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 cachefoodpantry.com.
• Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection: 435-915-6689 or cacherefugees.org.
• St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church: 435-752-1478 or 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.
Workers have said JBS has installed transparent plastic to separate workstations and require workers to wear masks, but employees still come in proximity to one another. The plant employees 1,400.
Once an outbreak started at JBS in May, the Bear River Health Department 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 its board wanted to honor Trump’s wishes.
A bill signed in May by Gov. Gary Herbert largely shields employers from liability when someone contracts COVID-19 on the premises. The statute says employers can still be sued if they commit “willful misconduct,” “reckless infliction of harm” or “intentional infliction of harm.” That is a higher standard than in other types of workplace injuries.
Rivera is from Puerto Rico and speaks little English. He says he tested positive in June during the first outbreak and quarantined for 14 days.
He returned to work even though he still had symptoms, he said. Rivera said he tested positive for the virus again Aug. 5. He resigned five days later.
“For me, humanity doesn’t exist there,” Rivera said of JBS. “Support — none. Space — none.”
Rivera said he knows nothing about any disability payments that were available to him. He said over the course of a month this summer he received $700 in pay or benefits. His rent is $940 a month. He fell behind on that as well as his car payments and auto insurance.