At least 290 JBS Green Bay workers are infected, thousands more at plants throughout the country.
A Pennsylvania man’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against meatpacking giant JBS after he died of coronavirus he caught while working, the family claims, in unsafe conditions at the company’s plant in Souderton, about an hour north of Philadelphia.
The suit comes as meatpackers are gaining national attention due to the close quarters employees frequently work in, and allegations that major meat processing companies were slow to react to the pandemic, putting employees at risk of contracting the potentially deadly virus.
The Pennsylvania man, Enock Benjamin, was one of more than 2,000 JBS employees throughout the country who have tested positive for COVID-19. At least 13 have died.
A minimum of 290 of the positive cases tied to JBS employees are at the company’s Green Bay meat packing facility, but the number is almost certainly higher because Brown County and the company have stopped releasing updated numbers. (The JBS factory in Green Bay is still frequently referred to by the name of its former owner, Packerland Packing Co.)
JBS, headquartered in Brazil, says it has 240,000 worldwide employees and more than 300 facilities in 150 countries. Coronavirus outbreaks at several of its U.S. plants have made headlines for weeks.
“This is a company that, because of their international scope, was painfully aware of what was going on in other countries, including Asia and Europe, and certainly could and should have thought about implications in the United States and in their plants well before the time that Mr. Benjamin was exposed,” said Steven Wigrizer, a partner at Saltz, Mongeluzzi, and Bendeskym, the Philadelphia law firm representing Benjamin’s family.
The suit alleges that the company forced employees to work in close proximity, “discouraged workers from taking sick leave” for fear of losing their jobs, did not provide adequate personal protective equipment, and did not properly monitor infected employees or notify coworkers when someone tested positive for coronavirus.
“Meatpacking plants are an ideal petri dish” to spread a disease like coronavirus, Wirgrizer said.
The suit also alleges JBS actually increased production rather than slow output down in the midst of the pandemic, adding a “Saturday kill” shift on Saturdays in March to match extra ground beef demand.
Claims in the suit include wrongful death, negligence, and fraudulent misrepresentation. At least 17 other employees at the Souderton plant were infected, prompting a temporary closure in April, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“There’s no excuse for it,” Wirgrizer said. “Even assuming that they were asleep at the switch, once the CDC and OSHA came out with their guidelines (on March 9), they should have been immediately implemented.”
Benjamin, 70, was a 12-year employee at the Souderton plant. He left work early on March 27 after experiencing “cough-like symptoms,” according to the lawsuit. A week later, he was dead.
Benjamin died in his son’s arms on April 3 while the two waited for an ambulance to arrive at their house, according to the law firm. The family is deferring comment to their attorneys currently, Wirgrizer said.
The suit targets JBS and four U.S.-based subsidiaries. Wirgrizer said the firm is encouraging other meatpacking employees to come forward if they contracted coronavirus, or if they can testify to the conditions in any of JBS’ plants nationwide.
JBS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.