When she heard on the news that JBS USA had paid $11 million in ransom to cybercriminals who shut down several of its meat plants, Beatriz Rangel could only think how differently the mega company had responded to the COVID-19 outbreak last year that killed her father and five co-workers, while sickening hundreds of others.
“I thought, ‘I’m sorry God, but they deserve everything they get,’” she said of JBS on Thursday. “They’re so quick to pay something like that, but they don’t value human life.”
JBS officials emphasized in news reports that they had taken immediate action at the first indication of a cyberattack, doing all they could to address the threat and contain the damage.
“It was very painful to pay the criminals, but we did the right thing for our customers,” CEO Andre Nogueira was quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the ransomware payment.
Nogueira further remarked in a company statement, “This was a very difficult decision to make for our company and for me personally. However, we felt this decision had to be made to prevent any potential risk for our customers.”
If only JBS had addressed COVID-19 that swiftly and decisively.
The talk of criminals reminded Rangel that JBS was able to expand from Brazil into America in the first place with illegal bank loans secured by paying millions in bribes in its home country.
Rangel understood that the CEO’s talk of pain and risk and difficulty was coming from a company that acted with little, if any regard for what her family experienced. Rangel was sure that the danger Nogueira was really talking about involved what had also been its paramount concern when the virus hit the meat plant where her father, Saul Sanchez, worked for three decades.
“Profits,” Rangel said.
When faced with the COVID-19 threat, JBS had decided that the best way to protect its profits was not to address the danger, but ignore it, whatever the cost to its workers, her father among them.
“They did not care,” Rangel said. “They did not value him. He was loyal. He gave them 30 years.”
On March 16 of last year, Weld County, which encompasses Greeley, issued a “Pandemic Health Emergency and Public Health Order.” One of the decree’s various provisions called for social distancing, meaning “people stay at least six feet away from each other.” But such precautions at the JBS plant would have necessarily slowed down the production line.
The 3,000 workers who continued to labor shoulder-to-shoulder there included Sanchez, who came home on March 19 complaining of nausea and fatigue. He remained the most dedicated of employees and went to work the next morning.
“God forbid he would call in sick,” Rangel later said.
That was the same day a Weld County health official emailed JBS to express concern that it was allowing large gatherings at the plant during lunch hour, with no regard for social distancing.
Four days later, on March 24, Sanchez became so ill that he was admitted to Greeley’s North Colorado Medical Center.
“I don’t want you worrying about me,” he told Rangel. “I’m going to be fine.”
He tested positive for COVID-19 the next day, becoming the first officially confirmed case among plant workers. One of his other five children, Patty, is an ICU nurse and told the family that she was seeing an alarming number of JBS workers falling ill.
“She was like, ‘There’s something going on. There are a lot of COVID cases coming in from JBS.’”
The family was also hearing from workers who said they were being pressured to work despite suffering COVID-19 symptoms. One woman said she had been ordered not to wear a mask “because it could scare employees.”
JBS convened a big meeting about the pandemic, and at least one of the employees became hopeful the company was going to address the threat.
“Instead, [the JBS supervisors] were like, ‘We’re going to have you guys work longer hours and we’re going to give you extra if you don’t call in sick,’” Rangel reported.
Word of the surge at the Greeley plant reached the Weld County Health Department, and an official there called JBS’s head of human resources on April 2. The official said he had received reports of a “work while sick” culture at the plant. He sent a follow-up letter to JBS stating that 64 percent of the employees who had tested positive reported they had “worked while symptomatic and therefore were contagious to others.”
On April 7, Sanchez died. He was known affectionately among his fellow workers as “papa” and “grandpa,” and numerous people reached out to his family to express their concern that JBS was just proceeding on as if nothing had happened. Three days later, Weld County ordered JBS to close the plant until April 15 and improve its mitigation protocols. The company chose not to reopen until April 24, as if it were taking extra precautions.
But, as reported by the Greeley Tribune, two medical techs subsequently swore in affidavits that the company’s procedures were more for show than effect, using malfunctioning temperature readers and failing to maintain social distancing even in the screening tent. Both techs said JBS encouraged people with symptoms to work. They said JBS charged those without insurance $100 cash for a test, often causing the worker to decline and return to the line. One JBS supervisor allegedly would ask those with a cough if they had slept with a window open. If the answer was yes, the supervisors would say that explained it. JBS has denied the techs’ allegations.
Meanwhile, the death of “papa” was followed by that of an equally beloved JBS worker known as ”mom” and “sister.” Tin Aye, a refugee from Burma, told her daughter in early March that one of her co-workers had tested positive. The daughter, San Twin, told Aye, “You have to keep a distance.”
“I have no choice,”Aye replied, by the daughter’s account. “We have to work the line. We have to line up and work.”
Aye herself began to experience symptoms and went to the plant’s small clinic at her daughter’s urging.
“Oh, they just told me I have a normal cold and I have to go back to work. I go back to work,” Aye said, according to her daughter.
Aye called Twin two days later.
“You know, I’m pretty upset,” she said.
Aye told Twin that she was at work when she had an urgent need to use the bathroom. She had repeatedly called for permission to step off the line but had received no reply for more than an hour.
“They don’t give me the permission, so I just pee myself in the plant,’” Aye said.
She could not have just slipped away and caused the whole line to back up with carcasses.
“What if they fire me?” Aye asked Twin.
The following week, Aye visited Twin and told her daughter she was feeling worse.
“‘They told me it’s a normal cold,” Aye said. “If I drink Tylenol or ibuprofen at home, it will be gone.”
Twin was coming up on nine months pregnant, and she had been careful to avoid potential COVID-19 threats. She tried to tell herself that she need not worry her mother might infect her.
“I keep thinking, ‘Oh, my mom is fine, it’s a normal cold,’” she remembered.
On March 27, Twin began experiencing contractions and followed her mother’s advice to head for the hospital. Twin was still there the following day when she herself began to experience body aches and other classic COVID-19 symptoms. The doctor ordered a COVID-19 test, and the result came back positive.
“The only way I can get COVID is from my mom,” Twin later said.
She called her mother, who was now having difficulty breathing.
“I said, ‘Mom, I got COVID-19 positive, you have the same symptoms. Mom, you have to go to the hospital right away,’” Twin recalled.
Aye called her husband, Aung Kwah Toe, who took her to the hospital.
In the meantime, the doctor had become concerned for Twin’s unborn child.
“My baby doesn’t have enough oxygen anymore,” she said.
Twin underwent an emergency C-section. But Aye was admitted to the hospital before she could see her first grandchild, a boy they named Felix.
“My mom, they said they cannot send her home, she look pretty bad right now,” Twin said.
Aye was on a ventilator for more than a month. She died on May 17, after a 10-minute FaceTime call with her mother back in the refugee camp where she had spent 15 years before coming to America in 2007. She was the sixth of her fellow workers at the Greeley plant to die from the virus. Another 300 of the 3,000 there had fallen ill. Nationwide, some 250 meat plant workers have died so far in the pandemic. And 50,000 were infected.
In the aftermath of Aye’s death, a JBS spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “We are deeply saddened by the loss of our faithful team member. We have been and will continue offering support to the family during this time. Our sympathies go out to everyone who has been impacted by COVID-19.”
The spokesperson added, “If Ms. Aye was told to work while sick or that she couldn’t use the bathroom, that would be a clear violation of both company policy and our culture as an organization. We are currently investigating her situation to make sure we took the right steps.”
If JBS investigated, it did so without contacting Aye’s family. San Twin reported on Thursday that the family had not heard a word from the company.
“Nothing,” she said.
She indicated that she does not pay much attention to JBS and what it is up to these days. She figures on just letting karma take its course.
“If they do a bad thing, a bad thing happen to them,” Twin said.
JBS had added to its bad things by contesting the Workers Compensation claims filed by the families of Sanchez and three other COVID fatalities at the plant. JBS argued that the deaths were “not work related.” The claims are still pending.
“Nothing yet,” Rangel said on Thursday.
Nobody sees much justice in the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration fining JBS $15,615 for failure to provide workers at the Greeley plant with adequate protection from the virus. JBS is contesting the allegation.
And even the $11 million ransom seems not much more than a trifle to a company that rakes in billions. JBS did not respond to a Daily Beast request for comment on the contrast between its actions during the pandemic and its response to the cyberattack. Meanwhile, as the CEO of a company bankrolled by illegal loans speaks of the pain of dealing with criminals, Sanchez’s family is feeling real pain even more keenly than a year ago.
“We went through the shock, we went through the anger,” Rangel said “Now it’s hitting us he is gone and he’s not coming back.”
She described him as “the heart of the family,” and added simply, “We just loved him.”
She recalled how the family had repeatedly asked him to retire and just enjoy the rest of his days.
“He wanted to keep working,” Rangel said. “Unfortunately, he worked for a company that had no regard for human life.”