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Meat packers deny workers' benefits for COVID-19 deaths, illnesses

(Reuters) – Saul Sanchez died in April, one of six workers with fatal COVID-19 infections at meat packers JBS US slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, the site of one of the earliest and deadliest coronavirus outbreaks at a US meat packing plant.

Before he became ill, the 78-year-old Mr. Sanchez left home only to work on the production line, where beef carcasses are sliced ​​into beef pieces, and to go to his church with his five-person congregation, his daughter said. Betty Rangel. She said no one else was infected in the family or in the Bible Missionary Church, which could not be reached for comment.

JBS, the world's largest meat packer, denied the family's application for workers' compensation, along with those submitted by the families. of two other Greeley workers who died of COVID-1

9, say attorneys handling the three allegations. Families of the three other Greeley workers who died also sought compensation, a union spokesman said, but Reuters could not determine the status of their claim.

JBS has stated that employees' COVID-19 infections were not work-related to deny claims, according to responses the company gave to employees, which were reviewed by Reuters.

As more Americans return to the workplace, the experience of JBS employees shows the difficulty of linking infections to employment and receiving compensation for medical care and lost wages.

"That's the ultimate question: How can you prove it?" said Nick Fogel, a lawyer who specializes in work compensation at the Burg Simpson firm in Colorado.

The meat packaging industry has been hit by severe coronavirus outbreaks, in part because production line workers often work side by side for long shifts. Companies including JBS, Tyson Foods Inc. and WH Group Ltd.'s Smithfield Foods closed about 20 facilities this spring following outbreaks, urging President Donald Trump in April to order plants to stay open to secure the country's meat supply. The White House declined to comment on the industry's rejection of workers' claims. The U.S. Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment.

Tyson has also denied the worker's compensation claim due to a major outbreak in Iowa, workers' lawyers told Reuters. Smithfield workers at a facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which was also hit by a major eruption, have generally not filed a lawsuit, a union official said, in part because the company paid infected workers' wages and medical bills.

Smithfield declined to comment on workers' compensation. Tyson said it examines allegations on a case-by-case basis, but declined to reveal how often it rejects them. JBS acknowledged that they rejected claims but refused to say how often. It called the denials in accordance with the law without elaborating.

Workers can challenge corporate denials in an administrative process that varies by state but usually resembles a court hearing. However, the burden of proof usually falls on the worker to prove that a claim was wrongly denied.

The whole picture of how the meat packaging industry has handled the compensation for COVID-19-related workers is still murky due to lack of national injury data. Reuters requested data from seven states where JBS or its subsidiaries have facilities that had coronavirus outbreaks. Only three states provided information in any detail; all show a pattern of rejection.

In Minnesota, where JBS had a major outbreak, meat packaging workers filed 930 workers' compensation claims with COVID-19 as of September 11, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. No one was accepted, 717 were rejected and 213 were examined. The agency did not identify the employers.

The Minnesota Department of Health said only two meat packing plants there had significant coronavirus outbreaks: a JBS pork processing plant in Worthington and a poultry plant in Cold Spring operated by Pilgrim & # 39 ;s Pride Corp., which is majority owned by JBS.

Tom Atkinson, a Minnesota compensation worker for workers who have represented meat packaging workers, estimates up to 100 COVID-19 claims were filed by Worthington plant employees.

In Utah, seven JBS workers filed COVID-19 claims by August 1 and all were denied, according to the state labor commission. At least 385 workers at a JBS beef factory in Hyrum, Utah, tested positive for COVID-19.

In Colorado, as of September 12, 69% of the 2,294 workers' claims for COVID-19 had been denied. The state does not break down the denials by industry, a JBS spokesman told Reuters that the company rejects claims in Colorado and that it uses the same procedures for reviewing claims across the country.

JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett did not answer the question of whether JBS employees were infected at work and declined to comment on individual workers' claims. He said the company has outsourced claims to a third-party administrator.

"Given the widespread nature of the virus, our third-party administrator examines each case thoroughly and independently," Bruett said.

Administrator, Sedgwick, did not respond to a request for comment. Mr Bruett, also a spokesman for Pilgrim & # 39 ;s Pride, did not respond to questions about infections and allegations at its Minnesota plant.

At the JBS plant in Greeley, where Sanchez worked before his death, at least 291 of about 6,000 workers were infected, according to government data. The company said in its written response to the family's claim that his infection was "not work-related" without spelling out its reasoning. The two sides are now suing Colorado's workers' compensation system.

Under Colorado law, a death benefit to a worker provides approximately two-thirds of the deceased worker's salary to the surviving spouse and pays non-insured medical expenses. Had JBS not denied the Sanchez family's claim, it would have provided his widow with a steady income and paid nasty medical bills totaling about $ 10,000, according to his daughter.

"They do not care," Rangel said of JBS. "They're all about the big wins, and they will not spend any money."

Mass Infections, Small Compensation

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, representing 250,000 American meat packaging and food processing workers, said last week that at least 122 meat packaging workers have died from COVID-19 and more than 18,000 had missed work because they were infected or potentially vulnerable.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said on September 11 that it had quoted JBS for failing to protect Greeley workers from the virus. OSHA cited Smithfield this month for failing to protect workers at its factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the agency said nearly 1,300 workers contracted coronavirus and four died.

Smithfield and JBS said the citations had no merit because they concerned the circumstances. in facilities before OSHA provided COVID-19 guidance for industry. OSHA said it stands by the quote.

Workers' compensation is generally the only way to recover medical expenses and lost wages for work-related injuries and deaths. The system protects employers from litigation, with few exceptions, and allows workers to collect benefits without having to prove wrongdoing or negligence. But the system was designed for factory accidents, not airborne diseases.

In response to the coronavirus, governors and legislators in at least 14 states have made it easier for some employees to collect work compensation for COVID-19 by imposing burdens on companies and insurance companies to prove an infection did not occur at work. But most of the changes, which vary depending on the state, only apply to workers in health care or emergency rooms. A similar proposal failed to get support in Colorado.

Mark Dopp, Attorney General of the North American Meat Institute, an industry organization that represents meat packers, said it is difficult to determine where workers get infections given the extensive sanitation measures taken by meat plants. and the workers' daily journey to and from the factories.

Tyson closed its pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa in April due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Ben Roth, a local labor lawyer, said five families of employees who died filed labor compensation claims for death benefits, and all were denied.

He said that meat processing companies have an incentive to deny any claim in recognition that they caused even an infection could hold the companies liable for all workers who hire COVID-19.

"It underscores the argument they want to make across the board: that you can not prove you have this and not in a grocery store," Mr Roth said.

Tyson said it follows state laws for workers' compensation. The company noted that Iowa law states that illnesses with an equal probability of being exposed outside the workplace "cannot be reimbursed as an occupational disease."

In Colorado, Sylvia Martinez runs a group called Latinos Unidos of Greeley, saying she knows of more than 20 JBS workers who applied for workers' compensation and were denied. Many construction workers are not English-speaking and sought her group for guidance, she said, adding that many do not understand their rights and fear being fired. has discouraged more claims, says Martinez.

"If you deny five or ten, these workers will tell their employees," she said.

JBS also questioned the claim of Alfredo Hernandez, 55, a guardian who worked at the Greeley plant for 31 years. He became infected and was hospitalized in March. He still trusts extra oxygen and has not returned to work, said his wife, Rosario Hernandez.

In general, companies approve cla ims if it looks likely that an employee was injured or became ill at work, says Erika Alverson, the lawyer representing Mr. Hernandez. But JBS, she said, argues that workers could have contracted COVID-19 anywhere.

"They come in, where did our customers go, what did they do during that time, who came into their house, what did their husband do, was there any other form of exposure?" Said Alverson, from the Denver company Alverson and O & # 39; Brien.

A judge will decide the Hernandez case in an administrative hearing.

"We get lots of bills," she said.

More insurance and work compensation news about the coronavirus crisis here .

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