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'They Had a Name, They Had a Face': Union Honors JBS Workers Who Died Of Coronavirus

GREELEY, Colo. (CBS4) – Friends, loved ones, and fellow union members gathered in Greeley Sunday to remember the six JBS employees who died due to COVID-19. The memorial event was held by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, which represents many employees at the meat packing plant.

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The JBS plant in Greeley was home to one of the state's earliest and largest coronavirus outbreaks. Since the beginning of April, 281 employees at the plant have tested positive for COVID-19 and 6 have died. According to state data, one employee from the corporate office also died.

"They had a name, they had a face, they had a heartbeat, they had a soul," said Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7. "We should never let anybody forget what happened to these workers."

During the memorial, UFCW Local 7 members, as well as several local leaders, paid tribute to the six plant employees who died this year: Saul Longoria Sanchez, Tibursio Rivera López, Eduardo Conchas de la Cruz, Way Ler, Daniel Avila Loma, and Tin Aye. Family members of five of the six former employees also spoke to the crowd.

"She always worked so hard and almost never missed her work at all," said Sam Twin, the daughter of Tin Aye.

"He would, day in and day out, not miss work. He was a dedicated worker," said Oliver Avila, son of Daniel Avila Loma.

Patty Rangel fought back tears while talking about her father, Saul Sanchez, as a humble, hardworking man who was the heart of the family. Sanchez, who had worked at JBS for more than 30 years, according to the family, was the first employee to die related to COVID-19.

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"People need to be held accountable to protect the people that work for them," Rangel said. "Right away if something had been done, maybe there wouldn't be six that have passed."

State and local leaders, including Sen. Michael Bennet and Greeley-Evans School District 6 school board member Rhonda Solis, echoed those sentiments. Each speaker called for different solutions, such as creating better worker protections and paid sick leave, as well as holding entities accountable.

"Employers like JBS must answer for not protecting its vulnerable workers," said Jorge Montiel, an organizer with the Colorado Industrial Areas Foundation. "City and county and state officials must answer for not ensuring our public health."

Following the service, loved ones and union members rode in a drive-by procession throughout Greeley. Two stops were new billboards honoring the six workers, and the final stop was a new memorial across from the plant.

The memorial, debuted by the union Sunday, includes a line of six crosses that line 8th Avenue across from the JBS plant. Each cross has a picture of the deceased employee, flowers, and a purple hard hat.

(credit: CBS)

"Depending on what you job you do you wear a different color hat. In the plant, the union is purple," said Kim Cordova.

For Rangel, the helmet honoring her father was a tough sight.

"It's heartbreaking because my father should not be right here," She said. "There shouldn't be six that have passed from this. As soon as they found out they had positive COVIDs here, they should have started the protection plan."

Earlier this week, JBS released the following statement regarding the union's efforts to memorialize the six employees who have died: We support the tribute to the tragic loss of our team members posted by our local union. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who have suffered during this pandemic, including those of the 1,647 Coloradans who have lost their lives. At JBS, our team members are family.

Over the last five months, COVID-19 has taken six of our Greeley beef team members, each of whom was beloved by their work family. We mourn their loss every day, and we grieve alongside the community, and most importantly, the families they leave behind.

As cases rise in many states across America, we all must continue to take the threat of coronavirus seriously. We have done everything we can to protect our team members while they are at work, implementing actions before receiving official guidance or direction in many instances. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment conducted a surprise inspection at the Greeley facility today, offering no suggested improvements to or criticisms of our current protocols. We agree with the union that the enhanced safety measures we have put in place must remain for the long term to protect our workforce as coronavirus continues to spread in our country.

We also believe we must face this shared threat together, recognizing that no one has all the answers but that we can defeat the virus with compassion, humility and partnership.

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