About 18,000 people have filed workers' compensation claims, saying they contracted COVID-19 while working in Minnesota.
Half of the claims have been paid so far. But state data show, as of Sunday, none of those paid have been from the state's largest meat-processing plants, where some of the state's biggest workplace outbreaks occurred.
The meat processing plants have had 935 claims filed for COVID.
"I've never seen numbers that dramatic," said John Malone, a workers' compensation attorney with Malone & Atchison in St. Cloud and Edina, Minn. "There are certainly claims that are disfavored and routinely litigated. But to accept zero out of 935 is shocking to me."
Malone said the pattern suggests that meat plant managers were applying a blanket policy, rather than individually judging each case.
Officials at Brazil, Minn.-based meatpacking firm JBS, which runs a large pork plant in Worthington and also owns the Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant in Cold Spring, Minn., denied Malone's assertion.
"We are following all legal requirements with respect to workers' compensation claims during the pandemic," JBS USA said in a statement. "Given the widespread nature of viral transmission in communities, our (insurance) administrator reviews each case thoroughly and independently."
Raising and processing pigs, turkeys and cows into food is a multibillion-dollar industry in Minnesota. In 2019, workers in the animal slaughtering and processing industry filed 171 workers' compensation claims, and 88% of them were paid. That was one percentage point below the Minnesota average for all industries.
JBS said the COVID-19 claims tallied by state officials were from a requirement the company fulfilled to notify the state of any diagnosed or alleged cases, and those do not necessarily match the allegations in workers' compensation claims. Sixteen of the cases remain unresolved.
Workers' compensation is a system in which employees who lose income because of work-related health problems can get paid without filing a lawsuit against the employer. Resolutions can include money sent directly to health care providers, or payments to workers or families for lost income. The claims are paid by insurers, though large companies are often self-insured, as JBS is.