GREELEY, Colo., (CBS4) – U.S. lawmakers are now investigating issues of worker safety at meat processing plants after outbreaks last year led to more than 250 deaths nationwide. The Select Subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis announced the investigation on Monday.

It released letters sent by Rep. James E. Clyburn, Chairman of the Select Subcommittee, to JBS USA, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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According to a release, the Subcommittee is seeking documents from the different entities related to coronavirus infections and deaths at meatpacking plants and the enforcement of worker protections by the Trump Administration.

(credit: CBS)

“Public reports indicate that meatpacking companies, including JBS, have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and lack adequate paid leave, and have shown a callous disregard for workers’ health,” Clyburn said in a letter to Andre Nogueira, President and Chief Executive Officer of JBS.

JBS, which operates a meat processing plant in Greeley was home to one of the state’s earliest and largest outbreaks in 2020. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 465 JBS employees at the plant have tested positive for COVID-19, according to UFCW Local 7. The union reports six UFCW Local 7 members and one corporate employee have died from the virus.

The first to die related after contracting COVID-19 was Saul Sanchez, an employee of JBS for more than 30 years.

“There’s definitely a lot of pain, a lot of frustration, a lot of anger,” said Betty Rangel, Sanchez’s daughter.

(credit: UFCW Local 7)

Since Sanchez’s death last April, Rangel, has been outspoken about what she sees as a failure by government entities to hold JBS accountable. She’s also one of several family members of JBS employees who says the company has denied workers’ compensation benefits.

Rangel said she was pleased to hear the Select Subcommittee will be investigating the company’s response to last year’s outbreak.

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“I think it’s great. I think it’s about time,” Rangel said. “I think they all need to be held accountable and their feet held to the fire because people want answers.”

In the letter to JBS, Rep. Clyburn said outbreaks spread to the community and killed many more Americans last year.

“It is imperative that shortcomings in worker protection are identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans,” he wrote.

Clyburn also penned a letter to OSHA, saying the agency “failed to bring meaningful enforcement actions” under the Trump Administration.

“OSHA issued penalties related to the coronavirus totaling over $3.9 million, but the agency issued only eight citations and less than $80,000 in penalties for coronavirus-related violations at meatpacking companies,” Clyburn wrote.

JBS, which brings in billions every year, was fined just over $15,000. At the time, families of employees who died due to COVID-19, as well as union leaders, were critical of the agency.

“Their job is to protect workers, and they failed horribly, and it cost workers their lives,” said Kim Cordova, president of the union representing JBS workers.

Cordova told CBS4 she believes the investigation into the companies and federal agency is long overdue, and hopes it brings both penalties and changes to the industry.

“We need to know what happened. Who knew what? Who was involved in these decisions to put workers at risk?” Cordova said.

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JBS released the following statement about the investigation:

We welcome the opportunity to provide members of the Select Subcommittee with information regarding our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce. Since the onset of the pandemic, JBS USA has invested more than $200 million in health and safety interventions, more than $160 million in bonuses and permanent increased pay, and donated more than $50 million to support our local communities.

We have implemented hundreds of safety measures including offering unlimited PPE, constructing permanent physical barriers, establishing physical distancing protocols, and installing hospital-grade ventilation systems in all of our facilities. JBS USA provides immediate testing to all symptomatic team members and close contacts, and has conducted more than 45,000 surveillance tests of asymptomatic team members to date. In addition to the hundreds of safety measures implemented in our facilities, we have voluntarily removed vulnerable population groups with full pay and benefits, covered 100% of all COVID-19 related health expenses for our team members and family members enrolled in our health plan, and offered a $100 incentive bonus for any U.S. team member willing to get vaccinated.

Conor McCue