In Texas, a rare workers’ comp win against meatpacker JBS

A former meatpacking worker in Texas won what appears to be the first workers’ compensation settlement for contracting Covid-19 at a meat processing facility. Experts say the ruling bodes well for scores of other meat plant workers who are pursuing, or may pursue, workers’ comp benefits for contracting the virus.

Former meatpacking worker Jose Tovar was employed at the JBS beef plant in Cactus, Texas, and contracted Covid-19 in April 2020, after which he missed three weeks of work. His initial filing for lost wages was denied by JBS’ insurer, American Zurich Insurance Co. Tovar appealed the denial with the help of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

At issue in the appeal was whether Tovar could prove his exposure to Covid-19 occurred at work and not at home or in another setting. Meatpackers, including JBS, have argued that workers are not entitled to workers’ compensation payments for contracting Covid-19 because they can’t prove they got sick on the job.

Last spring, nearly a third of the Cactus plant’s 3,400 workers contracted the virus, according to Tovar’s attorney, Christopher Benoit. FERN has counted two worker deaths at the facility.

“It was terrifying working in a facility where people were getting sick all around, and the company would not cover our expenses,” said Tovar in a press release.

The expert witness in the case was Dr. Melissa Perry, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who has analyzed the spread of Covid-19 at meatpacking plants. Perry testified that Tovar’s exposure did occur at work because of the high number of cases at the plant, the crowded nature of the meat processing lines and locker rooms, and his exposure to sick co-workers.

The judge, who serves in the Texas Department of Insurance’s Division of Workers’ Compensation, found Perry’s testimony “persuasive” and agreed that “the evidence supports [Tovar’s] exposure to Covid-19 occurred at work.”

JBS did not meet a May 18 deadline to appeal the judge’s ruling. In a statement, the company said its employees “who test positive for COVID-19 are eligible for short-term disability, and the company covers 100% of all COVID-related health expenses for those enrolled in our health insurance plan. Unfortunately, due to a processing error at the facility, Mr. Tovar did not receive his full payment in a timely fashion per our policy. As soon as this error was discovered, Mr. Tovar was compensated for his time away from work.”

The company also said there are currently no active Covid-19 cases at the Cactus plant, and that more than 70 percent of the U.S. JBS workforce has been vaccinated.

“I am happy that a judge found that JBS’ insurance company needed to be held accountable for what happened to me, and I hope they will be held accountable for the many other workers who became seriously ill at the JBS plant,” said Tovar.

The ruling has big implications for other workers attempting to obtain workers’ compensation benefits for workplace exposure to Covid-19, said David Muraskin, litigation director of Public Justice’s Food Project.

“For all the workers out there who have been told, ‘Go ahead and prove you got it at work’ — turns out, you can,” Muraskin said.

He said there are likely “a ton” of cases like Tovar’s going through administrative processes around the country. This case “gives them a model to follow so that hopefully workers will not be dissuaded from pursuing their rights and employers will not give this runaround to workers.”

In a press release, Benoit said he “hope[s] the judge’s decision paves the way for claims by other meatpacking workers who were injured or even died as a result of the unprecedented Covid-19 outbreaks that swept across Texas in the spring and summer of 2020.”

Workers’ compensation cases are typically heard by administrative law panels and reach a courtroom only on appeal. Employers who provide compensation for a workplace injury or illness are typically immune from further civil action. In a few lawsuits, including one in Iowa recently covered by FERN, meatpacking plant workers are suing employers for misrepresenting the risks posed by Covid-19 or over other allegations that go beyond the scope of workers’ compensation.

Nearly 60,000 meatpacking plant workers around the country have contracted Covid-19 and at least 296 have died, according to FERN’s ongoing tracking of Covid-19 outbreaks in the food system.