Fear and Anger Remain for Slaughterhouse Workers After Coronavirus Scourge

GREELEY, Colo. — Tin Aye died without ever laying hands on her newborn grandson.

Through her six decades of life, she endured a harrowing exodus from her homeland in Myanmar while pregnant with her only child, followed by 15 years in a refugee camp. She and her daughter, San Twin, managed to forge new lives in the United States.

But she could not survive her job inside a slaughterhouse run by the world’s largest meat processing company, JBS. She died last year, one of six people who succumbed to Covid while working at a plant in Greeley, Colo.

In crucial ways, much has changed for workers inside the long, low-slung slaughterhouse in Greeley, a city of roughly 100,000 people on the high plains of northern Colorado. In a new contract secured last summer, the union gained substantial raises from JBS, the Brazilian conglomerate that owns the plant. Colorado passed legislation mandating paid sick leave, after the state shut the plant for more than a week last year. Inside the slaughterhouse, dividers and partitions have been installed to help maintain social distancing.

But workers complain that many of the changes have been aimed at managing perceptions, while stubborn problems remain: not enough distance between people stationed at some parts of the assembly line, inadequate stocks of hand sanitizer, and subtle pressure to come to work even when they are ill.

“It gets thrown in our faces if we’re sick,” said Mariel Pastrana, 23, who has worked at the plant for nearly three years, and whose wages jumped from about $18 an hour to more than $26 under the new contract. “They keep saying, ‘Production is slow, demand is going up.’”

A spokeswoman for JBS, Nikki Richardson, disputed that characterization.

“Our focus throughout the global pandemic has been, and continues to be, to protect our team members from the virus and do everything possible to keep it out of our facilities,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

The Greeley plant, which paid $2,100 bonuses to workers who got the coronavirus shots, has achieved an 80 percent rate of vaccination, Ms. Richardson added. The facility has increased wages more than 50 percent over the past five years.

The experiences of workers at the plant reflect the lopsided apportionment of risk and reward within the business of turning cattle into beef.

The four largest meatpackers — including JBS — have collectively paid out more than $3 billion in dividends to shareholders since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a recent analysis from the White House.

At the same time, many cattle ranchers are going broke. People who work in slaughterhouses — among them immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa — say they still face a grim choice between their safety and their livelihoods.

“People are scared,” said Anthony Martinez, 52, a father of six who has worked at the slaughterhouse for more than three years. “We are putting our lives on the line.”

He is part of the so-called break chain — a crew of employees who labor in proximity, hacking whole cattle into smaller pieces.

“It’s heavy breathing,” he said.

After the state allowed the Greeley plant to reopen last year, management instructed people on the break chain to remain six feet apart, Mr. Martinez said — a step that slowed production. But last summer, workers were told to return to working within two feet.

The JBS spokeswoman declined to address the specifics of this case, while confirming that social distancing rules are variable. “There are some areas within our facility where team members have to move through the department,” she said.

Signs throughout the plant direct people to stay home when they are sick. But workers say supervisors still sometimes urge them to continue showing up.

“The signs are just there so they can say that they care for the employees, but they don’t,” said Agustina Gordo, 37, who has worked at the Greeley plant for four years.

Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, plant managers told employees not to wear their own masks while urging them not to discuss Covid for fear of spooking the work force, said Ms. Pastrana. Now, not wearing a mask can bring disciplinary action, she added. Yet masks present their own dangers, fogging up glasses, and preventing line workers from seeing clearly as they are cutting meat.

The JBS spokeswoman said workers “have access to anti-fog wipes and spray to ensure they can safely conduct their jobs while wearing masks.”

More than a year after her mother’s death, Ms. Twin, 30, struggles to recount the story without breaking down.

“My mother was the only family that I had,” Ms. Twin said as she held her son, Felix, now 20 months old. “I said, ‘Please don’t work in the plant anymore.’ She said: ‘I have to pay the bills. I’m strong. I’ll be OK.’”

Ms. Twin’s mother was a member of the Karen ethnic minority, which has long engaged in armed struggle with the military in Myanmar. In the early 1990s, her family fled over the border to a refugee camp in Thailand.

There, San Twin was born. She spent her first 15 years in a bamboo hut without electricity or plumbing, while the family subsisted on donated rice and beans. Her mother cleaned houses, washed clothes and tended to pigs to earn cash.

When she was 5, her father — a former soldier — briefly returned to Myanmar and was killed by the military for desertion, she says. Friends found his body floating naked in a river.

When the family was offered a choice of countries in which to settle, it opted for the United States, having heard that anyone willing to work hard could find a job.

In August 2012, Ms. Twin and her mother arrived in Denver, knowing no one and speaking no English. They moved into a cramped apartment. Her mother got a job working nights at the slaughterhouse in Greeley. She car-pooled with other Karen immigrants, leaving at 1 p.m. and returning home at 4 a.m.

She started at $12 an hour.

“That was a lot of money for us,” Ms. Twin said.

Her mother’s job was taking cuts of meat off the assembly line, packaging them and putting them in boxes. She stood on her feet for hours. The line was fast and relentless. Sanitizing chemicals misted down from the ceilings. Bathroom breaks were infrequent: Sometimes, Ms. Aye urinated in her clothes while working the line, her daughter said. She came home with an aching back, swollen fingers and bruises on her legs and arms.

Ms. Twin got married in 2019, and was soon pregnant. Months later, she found herself following the emergence of the coronavirus in China. She imagined that it could easily spread inside a packed slaughterhouse.

By early March, a man who worked behind her mother had contracted Covid. She begged her mother to stay home. But missing work meant forgoing pay.

Three weeks before her grandson was born, Ms. Aye began coughing uncontrollably. Ms. Twin urged her to go to the hospital, but her mother continued to work, even as she developed a fever.

Early on the morning of March 28, 2020, Ms. Twin began suffering painful contractions and shortness of breath. She drove through a snowstorm to the hospital. A test revealed that she had Covid.

She called her mother. Ms. Aye was by then struggling to breathe. Ms. Twin finally persuaded her mother to go to the hospital. There, she was diagnosed with Covid.

Ms. Twin’s son was delivered later that day by emergency cesarean. The next day, as she lay in the intensive care unit, her mother called from another hospital. Doctors had told her that her Covid was advanced.

“She was calling to say goodbye,” Ms. Twin recalled. “She said, ‘I really want to see you, but I can’t see you anymore.’ She told me to work hard for Felix. Just believe in the positive view, and help yourself and others. And then she dropped the phone. I never talked to her again.”

Ms. Aye suffered two strokes and slipped into a coma. She was kept alive by a ventilator until she drew her last breath on May 17, 2020.

“I always feel that she’s by my side,” Ms. Twin said.

JBS later gave her $6,000 for her mother’s funeral arrangements, and never called to offer condolences, Ms. Twin said.

For negligence leading to the deaths at the Greeley plant, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration later fined JBS $15,615.