Calling from his hospital bed late last month, Saul Sanchez assured his daughter, Beatriz, that he would be back to work within the week.
The previously healthy 78-year-old had been admitted to Greeley’s North Colorado Medical Center on March 24 — five days after he first started feeling tired and nauseated.
“I don’t want you worrying about me,” Beatriz Rangel recalls her father saying. “I’m going to be fine.”
The next day, after a test confirmed Sanchez had contracted COVID-19, Rangel, the second oldest of Sanchez’s six children, remembers him being in good spirits over the phone — loud even.
He told her that so many people were calling to check on him that he barely had time to get up and use the bathroom.
He asked Rangel to call his supervisor at JBS — the Greeley beef plant where he was employed as a line worker for 30 years — to let her know he had the coronavirus and that he’d be OK.
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“My dad never complained,” Rangel said, describing Sanchez as someone who was selfless, humble and always able to find the good in things.
He would remain that way to the very end — as his condition worsened, as he struggled to breathe and as he was placed on a ventilator.
Sanchez died from complications of COVID-19 on April 7, leaving behind his wife of more than 50 years, Carolina, their six children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Just days before his death, JBS’ Greeley beef production facility was officially declared the site of a coronavirus outbreak.
Sanchez was the site’s first employee to die from complications of the virus.
Since Sanchez’s death, three more employee deaths have been linked to COVID-19 and 102 Colorado JBS employees have tested positive for the virus, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s most recent data.
Eduardo Conchas de la Cruz, 60, and Tibursio Rivera López, 69, were later identified as two of the facility’s four COVID-19 fatalities. The other victim has not been publicly identified.
‘Work while sick’ culture
Emails acquired by the Coloradoan through a public records request indicate JBS and Weld County health officials’ earliest correspondence concerning coronavirus happened March 20, when the Weld County health department followed up on a complaint about JBS employees eating lunch in large groups despite social distancing guidelines.
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Weld County received its first report of a positive COVID-19 test in a JBS employee on March 26 — the same day Rangel said her father received his positive test result.
Soon, the tone of emails became more urgent as Weld County hospitals and clinics started reporting a surge of JBS employees and their family members coming in with coronavirus-like symptoms — accounting for 277 visits between three Weld County health systems from March 1 through April 2.
The sprawling JBS Greeley plant, which employs more than 3,000 people, was mentioned by both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence during a White House press conference April 10.
That same day, following further spread of the virus, and mounting deaths, the Weld County and Colorado health departments jointly issued a public health order for JBS, requiring the Greeley facility to close through April 15 in order to get a handle on cleaning and testing protocol in light of the deadly spread.
Two days later, the facility announced it would not reopen until April 24. The company hosted three days of COVID-19 testing for its Greeley employees on April 11-13.
Thrust into the center of a national spotlight, Rangel said her father’s coworkers kept calling the family in hopes they could share their experiences with the public.
“They said, ‘if it’s Saul, people will stop and listen,’ ” said Rangel, who has since shared her family’s story with local and national news outlets.
Rangel said one JBS employee told her they were asked to take off a protective face mask they were wearing, “because it could scare employees.” Others reached out to describe the pressures they felt to work while sick.
JBS denied forcing employees to come in while sick or punishing them for being absent, according to a statement sent to the Coloradoan on Tuesday.
“We are doing our best to provide a safe working environment for the men and women who are providing food for our nation during this challenging time,” JBS Communications Director Nikki Richardson said, adding that the company started implementing positive case tracking, self-quarantine and isolation procedures and enhanced cleaning policies at its Greeley facility in late-February.
But the emails obtained through the public records request by the Coloradoan reference concerns from clinicians about the company’s culture.
In an April 2 phone call, Mark Wallace — the director of Weld County’s health department — discussed coronavirus concerns with JBS’ head of human resources, including a perception by health care workers that the facility had a “work while sick” culture, per an email Wallace later sent outlining the county’s interactions with the company.
“These concerns expressed to clinicians included a perception by employees of a ‘work while sick’ culture that included managers and supervisors coming to work while sick,” Wallace wrote.
Rangel said it wasn’t uncommon for her father to work through illnesses.
On March 20, one day after exhibiting symptoms of what he thought was food poisoning, Sanchez went in for his shift at JBS.
“He should have never been there,” Rangel said, adding that she thinks JBS should have adopted stricter policies to prevent the spread of coronavirus among its employees, who often work in close quarters.
“But I do believe God used him for a bigger purpose,” she said, citing Sanchez’s infection and, later, death as the impetus for her family to speak out against JBS.
When Rangel first started speaking publicly about her father’s coronavirus case, she said she still wasn’t aware of how vast the virus’ impacts had become among her father’s coworkers.
“I did not know that people had been sick before my dad was sick,” she said.
“I didn’t know I couldn’t get a hold of his supervisor because she was already in the hospital, sick,” she added, referring to the supervisor Sanchez asked Rangel to call right after his positive COVID-19 test.
The Greeley facility isn’t the only JBS site — or Colorado meat packing plant — to experience an outbreak.
As of Monday, 60 positive COVID-19 cases had been reported among workers at JBS beef processing plant in Plainwell, Michigan. A cluster of almost 150 COVID-19 cases was recently reported among employees at a JBS beef plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
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A JBS pork facility in Souderton, Pennsylvania, was closed temporarily, while one in Worthington, Minnesota, has been closed indefinitely over positive COVID-19 cases among employees.
Cargill’s meat packing plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, is the site of another coronavirus outbreak, with 15 positive cases, three presumptive positive cases and one death linked to COVID-19 among its employees, according to Colorado health department data.
Today, every employee of a JBS facility must go through temperature checks before going to work and sick employees are immediately sent home, Richardson said. Employees are also required to wear face makes at all times on company property, among other safety and social distancing measures, she added.
“We understand and share the family’s anguish, and we are deeply saddened by the loss of our longtime and faithful team member to coronavirus,” Richardson said about Sanchez. “We have been and will continue offering support to the family during this time. Our sympathies go out to everyone in our hometown and across the world who has been impacted by this common enemy we all face.”
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‘It’s starting to hit home’
Before his death, Sanchez had just celebrated 30 years with JBS. Originally from Mexico, Sanchez left a high-profile job managing downtown Juarez’s largest pharmacy to bring his wife and children to the United States for more affordable medical care, Rangel said.
“He went from wearing a tie and suit everyday to work to laying sod and working in chicken houses,” she explained. After first working in Parker, Colorado, the family moved to Greeley, where Rangel started working at a Monfort meat packing plant, which was ultimately purchased by JBS.
On the beef processing line, Rangel said her father was beloved by many and often called “Papa” or “Grandpa” at work.
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“We were begging him to retire for the last five years,” Rangel said. “But he was just afraid to be bored and he really enjoyed the people he worked with. He would say, ‘I have two families. I have my home family and my work family.’ ”
When Sanchez’s family started planning a tiny funeral and celebration of life for him, Rangel said nearly 800 people reached out to the family to see if they could attend.
“But there was just no way,” she said, adding that due to coronavirus restrictions only Rangel, her mom, siblings and their spouses were allowed in the Greeley funeral home that hosted Sanchez’s funeral.
For two hours, the family remembered Sanchez and played his favorite songs — Elvis’ rendition of “Amazing Grace,” “Yesterday,” by The Beatles, “The Dance,” by Garth Brooks.
More family and friends were allowed at Sanchez’ burial in Greeley’s Sunset Memorial Cemetery later that day — including his grandchildren.
Nearly a week after Sanchez’s funeral, Rangel said her family is trying to identify ways to honor his legacy and protect the JBS coworkers he left behind. They’re also taking time to mourn as his death continues to sink in.
“It’s starting to hit home that my dad’s gone,” Rangel said, adding that her siblings always teased her for being their dad’s favorite — that in his eyes, “I could do no wrong,” she said.
Rangel — her voice quivering — said Monday was one of her hardest days yet. That afternoon, she went back to Sunset Memorial Cemetery, where her father was newly buried, and bought the cemetery plot next to him.
“I don’t want him being alone.”
JBS coronavirus outbreak: a timeline
Late February: JBS says it establishes positive case tracking, outlines a team member notification process, develops procedures for self-quarantining and isolation and increases cleaning and sanitation frequencies in response to mounting global concerns over the coronavirus.
March 5: Colorado’s first two positive COVID-19 tests are announced.
March 10: Gov. Jared Polis declares a state of emergency in Colorado in response to the virus.
March 19: Longtime JBS employee Saul Sanchez comes home from work and complains of feeling tired and nauseated. Thinking he might have food poisoning, he goes into work the next day.
March 20: Weld County health officials email JBS to follow up on a complaint about its Greeley employees eating lunch in large groups despite social distancing guidelines.
March 26: After being hospitalized for two days, Sanchez receives a positive test result for COVID-19. That day, the Weld County health department receives its first report of a JBS employee contracting the virus.
April 2: Weld County health department director Mark Wallace speaks with JBS’ head of human resources about COVID-19 cases among its Greeley employees, who had been visiting Weld County hospitals and clinics by the dozens. In the call, Wallace raises concerns about a perceived “work while sick” culture at the facility.
April 4: JBS’ Greeley facility is officially declared the site of a coronavirus outbreak.
April 7: Saul Sanchez dies from complications of COVID-19, making him the first of four known Greeley JBS employees to die in connection to the virus.
April 10: President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both mention the outbreak at JBS’ Greeley facility during a White House press conference. That same day, the Weld County and Colorado health departments issue a joint public health order, requiring the Greeley facility to close through April 15 and get a handle on cleaning and testing protocol in light of the deadly spread.
April 11-13: JBS hosts drive-up coronavirus testing for its employees in the parking lot of its Greeley plant.
April 13: JBS announces it will remain closed until April 24. In a press release, the company lists off safety measures, health protocols and worker benefits it has adopted at all of its facilities, including temperature tests and enhanced cleaning and social distancing protocols.
April 15: Saul Sanchez is laid to rest in Greeley’s Sunset Memorial Cemetery.
April 20: State health department data shows 102 employees at JBS in Greeley have tested positive for COVID-19 and four employee deaths have been linked to the virus.
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Erin Udell reports on news, culture, history and more for the Coloradoan. Contact her at ErinUdell@coloradoan.com. The only way she can keep doing what she does is with your support. If you subscribe, thank you. If not, sign up for a subscription to the Coloradoan today.
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