COVID-19 death of Philly meat processing worker spurs wrongful death lawsuit

Enock Benjamin

Enock Benjamin, 70, was a shop steward at a meat processing plant in Montgomery County. He died in early April after becoming infected with COVID-19.

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The family of a Pennsylvania shop steward who died last month from COVID-19 has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against JBS USA, one of the country’s largest meat processing companies.

The suit, filed Thursday in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, alleges JBS ignored federal coronavirus guidelines and worker safety, and that Enock Benjamin, 70, died as a result of the company’s “negligent, reckless and outrageous conduct.”

“JBS prioritized profits over people,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, one of the attorneys representing the Benjamin family.

Benjamin, a married man with two adult children, lived in Northeast Philadelphia and worked at a JBS meatpacking plant in Souderton. He was chief steward of Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union with an office inside the Montgomery County plant.

The suit alleges JBS made social distancing impossible, forcing workers to use “cramped and crowded” work areas, break areas, bathrooms and hallways. The complaint also accuses the company of not providing sufficient personal protective equipment, discouraging workers from taking sick leave, and failing to properly test for and monitor the virus during the pandemic.

JBS also “deliberately” didn’t tell employees that co-workers had become infected, while boosting production by adding an extra day of work to keep up with consumer demand for ground meat, according to the complaint.

“The JBS Defendants intentionally misrepresented and deceived workers into believing that the JBS Souderton Plant was safe to ensure that workers continued to show up each day for their shifts and to ensure that the JBS Defendants continued to profit,” the suit claims.

Benjamin died from respiratory failure due to COVID-19 on April 3, the day after JBS got masks and other PPE for its workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that Pennsylvania leads the nation in meat-processing workers who have tested positive for COVD-19.

As of May 1, there were 858 confirmed cases from workers at 22 Pennsylvania plants.

According to the suit, JBS has dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks inside at least seven meat processing facilities, including the one in Souderton. The other plants are in Greeley, Colorado; Plainwell, Michigan; Green Bay, Wisconsin.; Cactus, Texas; Worthington, Minnesota, and Grand Island, Nebraska.

Seven workers at the Colorado plant have now died from COVID-19.

JBS USA did not immediately return a request for comment.

The lawsuit from Benjamin’s family comes as Congress mulls whether to expand liability protections for businesses as they reopen during the unprecedented circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce told NPR it is concerned about employees filing “frivolous lawsuits” and that it is seeking a “safe harbor” for companies that act in good faith to comply with state and federal regulations. Some employers and workers advocates have argued government agencies have not provided enough clear guidance for businesses to follow.

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