Meat Giant Sued for Worker’s Covid-19 Death in Philadelphia

By Millie Munshi | May 12, 2020

The family of a beef plant worker who died because of the coronavirus has brought a wrongful death lawsuit in a Philadelphia court against JBS SA, the world’s biggest meat company.

Ferdinand Benjamin filed the suit on Thursday after his father, Enock Benjamin, died of respiratory failure caused by Covid-19, according to a copy of the timestamped complaint provided by Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, the law firm representing the family. Enock Benjamin worked at the JBS USA plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania.

“JBS treated workers as expendable and placed them standing shoulder to shoulder without basic protective equipment such as masks,” attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi said in a statement.

JBS, based in Sao Paulo, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit. In a statement earlier this week, the U.S. unit said it was “doing everything possible to provide a safe working environment for our team members.”

The suit may be part of the beginning of a litigation wave against meat companies after thousands of U.S. workers contracted the virus. At least 27 meatpacking workers have died in the coronavirus pandemic, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The family of a meatpacking worker who died brought a wrongful death lawsuit in a Texas state court against Dallas-based Quality Sausage Co. earlier this week.

Smithfield Foods Inc. was sued last month by employees at a rural Missouri pork-processing facility. They argued that the company, owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group Ltd., hadn’t done enough to protect workers from the virus. U.S. District Judge David Gregory Kays on Tuesday declined to hear the case, saying it’s up to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the courts, to oversee safeguards for workers.

The meat industry faces the most serious threat to U.S. supplies since World War II. The pandemic highlighted worker conditions at slaughterhouses, where cold, damp factories and crowded workstations make infectious diseases particularly hard to control. The jobs are also low-paying and provide few benefits, further underscoring how labor inequality is one of the most significant rifts brought to the fore by Covid-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that conditions at U.S. meat plants contributed to increased risk of infections, and ultimately more than 4,900 workers fell ill. The agency cited difficulty maintaining social distancing and adhering to the heightened cleaning and disinfection guidance among the factors that increased risks for workers

–With assistance from Marvin G. Perez and Lydia Mulvany.

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