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Meatpackers Show GOP Push for Coronavirus Liability Protection Unnecessary

Republicans have been holding up additional coronavirus relief by demanding that we give businesses even more liability protections from coronavirus-related claims.

But additional liability protections are unnecessary. The meatpackers, for instance, can already deny workers compensation claims for coronavirus illnesses and deaths and leave employees with the huge burden of proving that they got sick at work:

Saul Sanchez died in April, one of six workers with fatal COVID-19 infections at meatpacker JBS USA’s slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, the site of one of the earliest and deadliest coronavirus outbreaks at a U.S. meatpacking plant.

Before getting sick, the 78-year-old Sanchez only left home to work on the fabrication line, where cattle carcasses are sliced into cuts of beef, and to go to his church, with its five-person congregation, said his daughter, Betty Rangel. She said no one else got infected in the family or at Bible Missionary Church, which could not be reached for comment.

JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, denied the family’s application for workers’ compensation benefits, along with those filed by the families of two other Greeley workers who died of COVID-19, said lawyers handling the three claims. Families of the three other Greeley workers who died also sought compensation, a union representative said, but Reuters could not determine the status of their claims.

JBS has said the employees’ COVID-19 infections were not work-related in denying the claims, according to responses the company gave to employees, which were reviewed by Reuters.

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

“That is the ultimate question: How can you prove it?” said Nick Fogel, an attorney specializing in workers’ compensation at the firm Burg Simpson in Colorado [Tom Hals and Tom Polansek, “Meatpackers Deny Workers Benefits for Covid-19 Deaths, Illnesses; Few Issues at Sioux Falls Smithfield Plant,” Reuters via KELO Radio, 2020.09.29].

Reuters reports that coronavirus hotspot Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls has not seen workers comp claims because Smithfield had the decency to pay infected workers’ wages and medical bills. But workers who don’t enjoy such good graces are already at a disadvantage in any legal fight to prove that their capitalist overlords bear any responsibility for their illness.

11 Comments

  1. leslie 2020-09-29

    On the same day that Helen received her results, the issue of the Smithfield plant had turned fully political. [Tuesday, April 14]

    Mayor TenHaken formally requested that Governor Noem issue a shelter-in- place order for Sioux Falls’ surrounding counties as well as an isolation centre. She denied both requests. Despite the steep increase in cases, Noem also continued to decline to issue a shelter-in-place order in South Dakota, specifically saying that such an order would not have prevented the Smithfield outbreak.
    “That is absolutely false,” she said.
    Instead, she approved the first state test of hydroxychloroquine, a drug that President Donald Trump has frequently cited as a possible treatment for coronavirus.

    It was also the same day that Agustin Rodriguez Martinez, a quiet, deeply religious man originally from El Salvador, died from the illness, alone in hospital. He was 64, the first known death connected to the outbreak at Smithfield Foods. Reynoza, a friend of his for the past decade, said that he rarely complained about his gruelling job sawing the legs off pig carcasses and that he doted on his wife Angelita, whom he knew for only a month before they married. They were together for 24 years.
    “He was her prince.” BBC article

  2. leslie 2020-09-29

    On 9 April, with 80 cases confirmed, Smithfield released a statement saying that the plant would close for three days over the Easter weekend for deep cleaning, and return to full capacity that Tuesday. “The company will suspend operations in a large section of the plant on April 11 and completely shutter on April 12 and April 13,” a statement from the company read.

    But the BBC learned through interviews with workers and advocates that Smithfield employees were still being called into work on all three days. Reynoza took videos showing the company parking lot filled with cars, and employees entering the plant. Caraway said he learned subsequently that the plant was running at about 60-65% capacity, meaning hundreds of workers were still coming in.
    “I haven’t stopped working yet. I worked Friday, Saturday, Sunday and they want me to come back today,” Tim told the BBC on the Monday after Easter weekend. “I’m terrified. Terrified. Like I’m at a loss for words. [But] I got four kids to take care of. That income is what provides a roof over my head.” BBC

    Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, who said he was impressed and satisfied by the mitigation efforts taking place at Smithfield, admitted he felt surprised when he learned that the plant was still partially open.
    “There could have been more transparency by them on the measures they were taking,” he said. “The message to the public didn’t match the actual plan.”

  3. leslie 2020-09-29

    “My little boy you know, I lock the door – he knock on the door. ‘Hey, daddy you wanna come out?’ I say, ‘Go with your mom,'” he says. “I don’t have a choice. What can I do? I want to try to save my family.”
    If employees like Kaleb were to quit, they would be ineligible for unemployment. Advocates are hearing from visa-holders who fret that even if they were to apply for unemployment, they might be considered “public charges” which could render them ineligible for permanent residency under a new rule enacted by the Trump administration last year. (According to a spokeswoman for the Ways and Means Committee, unemployment compensation is an “earned benefit” that would not disqualify visa-holders from residency.)” The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act excludes anyone living in a mixed-status household with an undocumented family member.

    “They do not qualify for anything,” said Taneeza Islam, the executive director of South Dakota Voices for Peace and an immigration lawyer. “Their choice is between putting food on the table, and going to work and getting exposed.”

    On 9 April, with 80 cases confirmed, Smithfield released a statement saying that the plant would close for three days over the Easter weekend for deep cleaning, and return to full capacity that Tuesday. “The company will suspend operations in a large section of the plant on April 11 and completely shutter on April 12 and April 13,” a statement from the company read. BBC

    Rewarding bad actors, Kristi and the Don? Guliani, Christie, Stone, Flynn, Manafort, Kennedy( ?) ect ect ect.

  4. o 2020-09-29

    California and some other states have passed laws shifting the burden of proof from the employee to prove workplace infection to the workplace to deny workplace infection on Workers’ Compensation claims.

    Especially in our schools, I would predict this will become a battle for infected teachers and staff in SD, especially as more and more schools move toward “essential worker” policies that get teachers and students back to school faster than CDC guideline quarantine procedures.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-09-29

    O, I’m glad some states are willing to give workers some relief against the otherwise huge disadvantages they face in pursuing justice in the workplace. Am I correct to assume that South Dakota teachers trying to pursue such justice with workers’ comp claims will face an uphill climb? Do schools incur greater liability risk by declaring their teachers “critical infrastructure” workers and lowering their quarantine standards?

  6. o 2020-09-29

    I would expect that the issue of responsibility and virus spread will become a battle. Personal health insurance (and personal out-of-pocket), workers’ compensation, and liability will all end up trying to push costs onto each other as issues of “responsibility” get litigated for the potential catastrophic costs of COVID infection. Determination of negligence will be central to who is left paying bills. Let the lawyers start weighing in.

  7. Richard Schriever 2020-09-29

    Universal national health care would eliminate much of the litigation.

  8. o 2020-09-30

    One more point on Workers’ Comp: it is my understanding that Workers’ Comp is in lieu of suing for negligence (which would include torts for pain and suffering). Perhaps I am being too cynical here, but I would be willing to bet that the “decency” shown by Smithfield Foods was a calculated payment to avoid having their pockets dipped into MUCH deeper for negligence.

  9. leslie 2020-09-30

    Perhaps SD has sovereign immunity or other liability shields but the state is denying responsibility.

    Above, “Noem also continued to decline to issue a shelter-in-place order in South Dakota, specifically saying that such an order would not have prevented the Smithfield outbreak.
    ‘That is absolutely false,’ she said.

    Instead, she approved the first state test of hydroxychloroquine, a drug that President Donald Trump has frequently cited as a possible treatment for coronavirus.”

  10. Debbo 2020-09-30

    I have become so used to the limitless greed of Big Business that I have to remind myself that these are human lives and human suffering they’re very willing to risk for the sake of greater bonuses and stockholder dividends. I think it’s important for us to remember just how callous, cruel and depraved their behavior is.

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