GREELEY, Colo., (CBS4) – The JBS meat packing plant in Greeley has denied the workers’ compensation benefits of several employees who contracted COVID-19, three of whom died because of the virus, according to a report by Reuters.

The report states the company said the infections were not work related when denying the claims.

(credit: CBS)

The plant was home to one of the state’s earliest and largest COVID-19 outbreaks, with 291 reported cases, according to state data. In total, six line employees and one corporate employee have died from COVID-19.

Saul Sanchez, who had worked for the company for more than 30 years, was the first employee to die due to the respiratory disease.  According to Britton Morrell, an attorney representing the family in its workers’ compensation case, Sanchez first showed symptoms of COVID-19 on March 19. He died less than a month later on April 7.

“The week before he got sick, he worked 17 hours’ overtime,” said daughter Beatriz Rangel. “The week he was sick he worked 7 hours’ overtime.”

Saul Sanchez (credit: Sanchez Family)

According to Rangel, Sanchez’s wife applied for dependency benefits under Colorado workers’ compensation law after his death, but they were denied by the company.

“The next thing you know it’s denied,” Rangel said. “’Well, you guys can’t prove he got COVID at work.’ It’s like, no. I think we can.”

According to the recent report from Reuters, Sanchez’s family isn’t alone. It states the company denied the claims of at least two other deceased employees’ families, as well as the claims of several others who survived.

“Even though they could deny liability at that point saying, ‘hey we need further investigation,’ JBS took the rather aggressive stance of saying, there is not a work connection between JBS and Saul’s infection and later death,” said Britton Morell, who is representing the family.

According to Morrell, the next step would be to schedule a hearing before an administrative law judge. In these types of cases, the burden of proof is on the employee, he said.

“We haven’t received any evidence of Saul being exposed to anybody else who was COVID positive outside of work,” Morrell said.

In a statement, a JBS spokesperson said, “the denials were issued by our third-party claims administrator consistent with the Colorado Workers’ Compensation Act.”

Rangel said the company’s decision has only added to her family’s pain and uncertainty.

“Knowing he was just a number to them and how loyal and faithful, my dad was there for 30 years, it was very hard for us to comprehend,” She said.

The Sanchez family isn’t alone in struggling to link a COVID-19 infection or death to an employer. According to data shared by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, 2,452 COVID-19-related claims had been filed to the state as of 9/26/20.

RELATED: ‘It’s A Joke’: Family Reacts To $15,000 Fine Against Greeley’s JBS Plant

Of the 20 fatal initial claim reports, only 1 has resulted in an admission, meaning the insurer has agreed that they are liable for benefits. Of the 2,432 non-fatal reports, 501 resulted in admissions and 223 are in the midst of paying benefits. 3 fatal cases and 73 non-fatal cases are pending.

On Tuesday, UFCW Local 7, the union that represents JBS workers, sent the following statement by email about the situation:

“UFCW Local 7 is disgusted, but not surprised, to hear that JBS has denied workers’ compensation to the families of our members who were infected with COVID-19 at the plant, six of whom died. The basis of JBS’ claim that the employee’s COVID-19 infections were not work-related is a downright lie. Even the paper-tiger OSHA fined JBS a grossly insulting $15,000 for insufficient protection of its workers during the pandemic.

Every worker who died or got seriously infected contracted the disease working at the plant during the same time frame in March 2020. It was during this same time frame that Weld County reported hundreds of COVID-19 infected JBS workers flooding local hospitals, all of whom complained, officially, about a dangerous ‘work while sick’ culture at the JBS plant.

We are hopeful that the families of our members get what they deserve as these cases go through Colorado’s workers’ compensation system. Although these funds can never bring back their dead relatives, they can at least pay off medical bills and burial costs.”

Conor McCue

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