Lawyers for a veteran meat-packing worker who died of COVID-19 last month have sued his former employer, the meat giant JBS, accusing it of wrongful death and negligence over the Haitian immigrant’s fatal encounter with the coronavirus.
Enock Benjamin, 70, a union steward from Northeast Philadelphia, worked at JBS’s Souderton slaughterhouse, and died on April 3 from respiratory failure brought on by the pandemic virus, according to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office.
The suit, filed Thursday in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, says that JBS failed to protect workers with masks and other safety measures at the 1,400-employee meat-processing complex, and instead tacked onto the production schedule a “Saturday kill” program in March to satisfy demand in the “public panic purchases of ground meat.”
“By choosing profits over safety, JBS demonstrated a reckless disregard to the rights and safety of others,” the suit claims.
JBS was not immediately available for comment.
The suit is among the first of many expected to be filed nationwide against a U.S. meat-processing industry ravaged by the pandemic. Crowded conditions in pork, beef and poultry plants and the transportation of “essential” meat-processing workers to jobs in packed vans have led to outbreaks across the nation.
In late April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order compelling meat processors to remain open to head off shortages despite mounting concerns of plant worker deaths and illness due to COVID-19. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat plants as essential infrastructure.
Worker safety experts said that the order would prevent local health officials from ordering meat companies to close plants to protect workers. Trump has also said it would “solve any liability problems” but it was unclear how that would work out in practice.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that Pennsylvania had more COVID-19 positives among meat-processing workers, 858 cases at 22 plants, than any other state. The Inquirer also reported in late April on a Bell & Evans poultry worker in Lebanon County who died.
The suit filed Thursday says that JBS, one of the world’s largest beef-processing companies, has experienced virus outbreaks at least at six other meat plants, in addition to Souderton. These are in Greeley, Colo.; Plainwell, Mich.; Green Bay, Wis.; Cactus, Texas; Worthington, Minn., and Grand Island, Neb.
JBS closed the Souderton meat plant for two weeks in April for sanitizing and to implement social distancing inside the complex. The plant was closed for the cleaning when Benjamin died. Among the precautions the company planned to take when the Souderton plant reopened were promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts, and breaks; increasing spacing in cafeterias and break and locker rooms; dedicating staff to continuously clean facilities; temperature-testing employees; providing extra personal protective equipment, including masks; removing vulnerable employees from the plant with full pay and benefits; and relaxing attendance policies so people don’t come to work sick.
Wendell Young IV, president of the 35,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents the hourly JBS workers in Souderton, has said he was satisfied with the JBS improvements. Benjamin had been a shop steward at the plant, commuting about 40 minutes between his home in Oxford Circle and Souderton. He had a wife, son, and daughter.
The Benjamin family is represented by plaintiffs firm Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky in Philadelphia.
Robert Mongeluzzi is a partner in the firm, which reached a $160 million settlement against U-Haul for a 2014 food truck explosion in North Philadelphia that killed a mother and daughter and injured 11 people. He said Benjamin was “really living the American dream. It’s terrible that he died because the company did not take precautions.”
Mongeluzzi said that he expects other lawsuits to be filed against employers or institutions with clusters of workers such as prisons, nursing homes, cruise ships and meat-packing plants. He said that the CDC and OSHA issued guidance for workers on March 9.
The Benjamin suit claims that JBS “ignored federal guidance and put plant workers in the cross hairs of a global pandemic.”