September 30, 2020


US meatpacking workers affected by COVID-19 denied compensation claims


Major United States meatpackers JBS USA and Tyson Foods have denied workers benefits and compensation claims for COVID-19 related deaths or illnesses, Reuters reported.


JBS USA workers who filed compensation benefits were rejected after the company said their COVID-19 infections were not work-related, according to JBS responses to workers reviewed by Reuters.


Workers' attorneys representing Tyson Food employees also told Reuters that the company denied compensation claims for workers affected by a COVID-19 outbreak in its Iowa plant.


However, Smithfield Foods workers from its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant have not filed claims. According to a union official, this was because the company had paid wages and medical bills for workers who were infected.


Major US meatpackers including JBS, Tyson Foods and WH Group's Smithfield Foods temporarily closed about 20 plants in spring after COVID-19 outbreaks were detected, primarily because workers work side-by-side on the production line for long shifts.


Following the plant temporary closures, US President Donald Trump ordered plants to stay open to ensure the country's meat supply. The White House did not want to comment on the meat industry's denial of workers claims. No comment was received from the US Department of Labor.


JBS affirmed that it denied claims but did not mention how many, claiming that it was consistent with the law. Tyson Foods said claims are reviewed on a case-by-case basis but did not reveal how many cases were denied. Smithfield Foods did not wish to comment on its workers' compensation.


Nick Fogel, an lawyer specialising in workers' compensation at Burg Simpson firm in Colorado, said it is difficult for workers to prove that their illnesses or deaths are related to COVID-19 outbreaks at meat plants.


Workers could challenge companies that deny their claims, but the burden of proof is on the worker to attest that his or her claim is wrongfully denied.


It is difficult to obtain a national claims data on how the US meatpacking sector has managed workers' compensation related to COVID-19. Reuters managed only to receive data from three states, even though it requested data from seven states total.


In Minnesota where JBS and Pilgrim's Pride plants, owned by JBS reported a COVID-19 outbreak, 930 compensation claims were filed according to Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. 717 were rejected and 213 were under review.


In Utah, the states labour commission said seven JBS workers filed compensation claims and all were rejected. 385 workers at a JBS Hyrum beef plant in the state tested positive for COVID-19.


In Colorado, about 1,582 cases out of 2,294 claims were rejected. The state doesn't breakdown the cases by industry, but a JBS spokesman told Reuters that its Colorado workers claims are being rejected.


Cameron Bruett, JBS spokesman said workers claims have been outsourced to a third-party administrator, Sedgwick. Sedgwick did not respond to Reuters' request for comment.


The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union said 122 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19 and 18,000 workers have missed work as the were either exposed or infected. The union represents 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers in the US.


While there is an amendment in at least 14 states that place the burden on companies and insurers to show COVID-19 infections did not occur at work, this is only limited to healthcare or emergency workers.


Mark Dopp, general counsel for the North American Meat Institute, said it is hard to determine when workers were infected by COVID-19 as meat companies have implemented thorough sanitation measures.


Dopp said meat-processing firms will deny all claims as the companies could be exposed to liability for all their workers that are infected with COVID-19 should they admit to causing even one worker to be infected.


-      Reuters