SOUDERTON, PA — Enock Benjamin was known as the "champion of the people" and the "go-to man." He was a union chief steward at a meat-packing plant for 12 years who "loved to work." He loved America and his family, including his wife, two children, and newly born grandchild.
So when his plant asked him to come to work as the coronavirus outbreak began in March, he came to work.
Just a few weeks later, the 70-year-old dead of respiratory failure brought on by coronavirus, which he contracted while working at the plant, a lawsuit filed by his family states.
The suit, filed in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Thursday, argues that the local slaughterhouse failed to provide basic protections for their employees, and that this negligence led to Benjamin's wrongful death.
The lawsuit, filed against the JBS Beef Plant on Allentown Road in Souderton, is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania and among just a few filed in the country thus far, according to Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky P.C., which is representing the family of Enock Benjamin.
"(JBS) demonstrated that it was out to make a killing in the beef market with meat for consumers becoming scarce," attorney Steven G. Wigrizer said in a statement. "While it could have devoted weekends to disinfecting the plant following federal guidelines, JBS instead added what it called a 'Saturday Kill' to increase production and its bottom line."
JBS did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Patch.
As the outbreak began to spread through Montgomery County in March, the lawsuit alleges that JBS, a multinational corporation and the world's largest meat processor, failed to provide basic protective equipment for workers. The lawsuit says the company forced workers to operate in close proximity, discouraged workers from taking sick leave "in a manner that had sick workers in fear of losing their jobs," and failed to provide testing for individuals who were exposed to the virus.
Outbreaks have been reported at meat packing plants across the country. At the facilities, employees are in close quarters, making social distancing a challenging prospect.
The lawsuit argues that JBS flagrantly defied OSHA and CDC recommendations to close crowded workplaces or limit the number of workers.
Several individuals contracted the virus at the plant in March, and the plant remained open after for days after these confirmed positives, the suit states.
It closed on March 27, which was the day Benjamin left work early with coronavirus symptoms.
As of April 2, 19 employees at the plant tested positive for the virus.
Feeling out of breath at home on April 3, Benjamin collapsed, dying in his son's arms as his son called 911, according to attorneys. An autopsy confirmed his cause of death as "respiratory conditions related to COVID-19."
The plant reopened on April 20.
"The conditions that JBS workers were exposed to are repulsive," fellow attorney Jason Weiss said in a statement. "There is no question that the unsafe working environment should have been modified to adhere to CDC recommendations. Instead, workers were forced to choose between two horrific alternatives: work literally alongside those likely infected or be unable to support their families."
JBS and its affiliates, including its Brazilian parent company, JBS S.A., are named in the suit.
Pennsylvania has more coronavirus cases among plant workers than any other state, according to the suit.