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Hazleton meat-packaging plant closes with 130 workers testing positive for COVID-19; union leader at Souderton plant died

Four such plants have closed due to the virus.

Enock Benjamin, a union leader at JBS Beef plant in Souderton, died of respiratory failure from Covid-19, the family said.
Enock Benjamin, a union leader at JBS Beef plant in Souderton, died of respiratory failure from Covid-19, the family said.Read moreBenjamin family

Cargill Meat Solutions, a 900-worker plant in Hazleton, Pa., that packages meat in plastic for supermarket shelves in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, shut down temporarily on Tuesday as 130 hourly workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and a rash of employees called out sick, a union leader said.

And on Wednesday, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed to the family of a 70-year-old union steward at the JBS Beef slaughterhouse in Souderton, now shut down for a second week for sanitizing, that he died on April 3 from respiratory failure brought on by the pandemic virus.

The man, Enock Benjamin of Oxford Circle, had checked with a doctor but was not tested for COVID-19. He thought he had a bad case of asthma, and was using a nebulizer as he coughed and lost his appetite, son Cabo said.

By the time the family realized how sick he was, they couldn’t transport him to the hospital and called paramedics. He died soon afterward at home, in his bed. “I’m screaming in the street because nobody is there,” his son said of waiting for about 20 minutes for the ambulance. He broke down while being interviewed by phone.

Meat-processing plants across several states — Colorado, Iowa, and Nebraska along with Pennsylvania — are reporting COVID-19 outbreaks. A federal food inspector in New York died from the disease last month. And at least four meat plants in Pennsylvania have recently closed due to concerns related to the pandemic, said Wendell Young IV, president of the 35,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents workers at all four plants.

The four are Cargill in Hazleton, on the I-80 corridor connecting eastern Pennsylvania with New York, and JBS Beef in Souderton, along with the CTI Foods hamburger-grinding plant in King of Prussia and Empire Kosher Poultry Inc. in Mifflintown, in central Pennsylvania, Young said.

“These environments are almost impossible for workers to adhere to safe-distancing protocols," Young said. "We want our folks back to work, but we want them back safely. Safe is more important than fast.”

Young said the number of COVID-19 cases among Cargill hourly workers had risen to 164 by Thursday morning.

Some companies are temporarily closing to sanitize facilities while also boosting hourly pay and offering bonuses to workers in an “essential” industry. Cargill said it would reopen its Hazleton plant as soon as it is safe. In late March, Cargill and the United Food and Commercial Workers negotiated a $2 per hour raise for shifts worked between March 23 and May 3. JBS Beef employees will be eligible for a one-time $500 bonus on May 15.

Meat-packing plants present unique safety issues. Workers stand elbow to elbow wielding cutting tools and jostle each other in crowded break rooms. Temporary workers, transported in vans, can bring in the disease.

Keeping such workers healthy is part of the pandemic’s complexity, as U.S. companies and government officials seek a smooth-flowing food-supply chain without causing panic over potential shortages and worker safety.

“Everybody has to understand that there is food out there. We don’t see any shortages,” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Thursday. “We are concerned, but we are not alarmed yet,” he added of the difficulties facing food-processing plants.

The World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say COVID-19 cannot be spread through food, said Martin Wiedmann, a professor in food safety at Cornell University. It’s an “unstable virus” that is mostly spread through sneezing and person-to-person contact. Stomach acids also mostly neutralize the virus if it’s eaten, he added.

Wiedmann described the risk of the virus’ spreading on food packaging as “extremely low, virtually nil,” because of the time between packaging and when it’s stocked in supermarkets. But he added that grocery shoppers should always wash their hands after returning from the store.

Experts say workers might avoid food plants fearing they could be exposed to the virus, leading to labor shortages.

Young said he has encouraged workers to be honest when they test positive for COVID-19, but "it’s almost like the AIDS virus. People really want to be private about it.”

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases grew rapidly in Hazleton, Young said, adding that “it crept up on us.” The plant supplies an estimated one million families a day with meat, he said.

Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan said Wednesday that the Hazleton employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 were receiving appropriate medical care.

Cargill has met all food shipments “to date," he said, adding that “we will shift production to other facilities within our broad supply-chain footprint to continue to meet demand for our products.”

Neither CTI Foods nor Empire Kosher could be reached for comment. CTI closed its operation, with about 100 employees, on March 26. It’s expected to reopen next week, Young said. Empire closed early last week and would have been closed anyway for part of this week for Passover. It’s expected to reopen next week, Young said.

JBS USA spokesperson Cameron Bruett said Wednesday night that the Souderton plant shut down when several managers displayed flu-like symptoms. “We have decided to close the plant for two weeks to ensure we have the appropriate management leadership in place before resuming operations,” he added. The plant is expected to resume operations on Thursday.

Among the precautions the company plans to take when the Souderton plant reopens: promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts, and breaks, and increasing spacing in cafeterias and break and locker rooms; dedicating staff to continuously clean facilities; temperature-testing team members when they enter the complex; providing extra personal protective equipment, including protective masks; removing vulnerable employees from the plant with full pay and benefits; and relaxing attendance policies so people don’t come to work sick.

The Souderton plant had four or five confirmed COVID-19 cases among its hourly workers when it closed about two weeks ago, Young said. Now there are 17, he added.

Cabo Benjamin said on Thursday that his father, a 70-year-old Haitian immigrant, planned to retire in two or three years ago from the Souderton plant, but found so much satisfaction in working there. “Over 12 years, he never missed a day, and he was never late,” Cabo said.

His father spoke Haitian Creole, but learned Spanish to interact with the workers. He’d help Haitians get jobs there, too. For a while, he drove a van to transport workers to the plant, which was 40 minutes from his home. “In the Haitian community, he was a huge figure,” Cabo Benjamin said. “Everybody thought that my dad was like their dad.”

Local 1776′s Facebook posting on Benjamin’s death garnered 132 reactions, 55 comments and 62 shares. It did not mention COVID-19.

One reaction said that Enock Benjamin "was not a worker. He was a life lover. He didn’t love his life for himself. But through others, he watched his own life. He dreamed about seeing his colleagues, coworkers become better and better every day. [Enock] was a huge facilitator. For him no problem is difficult. He always try to solve people’s hardships. When HR is between 2 difficult mountains, that['s] just because [Enock] doesn’t talk yet. This handyman, this lawyer, this fighter will never rest in peace because his won’t stop being cited everywhere and everyday.”

Cabo’s sister, Debbie, had traveled to Philadelphia from her home in Mississippi. Cabo and his mother, Mireille, called the doctor on Thursday to ask what they should do after learning the cause of death on Wednesday. The doctor said there was nothing he could do and did not test them but told them to self-quarantine. That’s what they’re doing, Cabo said, as they make funeral arrangements.