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Families sue meat companies after workers die of COVID-19

Meat plants reopen amid pandemic
Meat plants reopen with safety guidelines amid pandemic 01:57

More than 50 meatpacking workers have died of COVID-19. Now, the families of two of those workers have sued their former employers, accusing the companies of ignoring safety guidelines.

A Pennsylvania family sued beef processor JBS last week over the death of Enock Benjamin, a 70-year-old man who died April 30 after contracting COVID-19 at the company's Souderton plant, the suit alleges. It accuses JBS, the second-largest meat processor in the U.S., of ignoring recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early March that meat companies position plant workers at least six feet apart and provide them with gloves. 

JBS did not require workers to report illness or to self-quarantine, and it did not obtain masks for workers until April 2, the complaint said, adding that the company added an extra work day so it could keep up with consumer demand for meat, according to the complaint. 

Benjamin had worked at the Souderton plant for 12 years, was a union steward and was well-liked by his colleagues, said Robert Mongeluzzi, the lead attorney on the case. "It is tragically ironic that he is the one that has lost his life because the multinational conglomerate didn't take the precautions that it should have," Mongeluzzi said.

JBS did not respond to a request for comment on the suit.

Meat shortages as virus forces plants to close 02:16

The case mirrors one filed May 4 in Dallas, Texas, by the partner and parents of Hugo Dominguez, who was a forklift operator at Quality Sausage. Dominguez, who was 46 when he died, started showing symptoms April 15 and died 10 days later. 

Despite showing symptoms, Dominguez "was told to report to work and to keep at it – otherwise he would have been laid off," the suit claims, adding: "His death could have been prevented had the company spent a small segment of its $100 million profits to protect its underpaid and overworked employees." Another Quality Sausage worker in his 30s, Mathias Martinez, also died after contracting COVID-19 at the plant, according to reports.

In a statement, Quality Sausage said it had not received the suit and "cannot comment on pending litigation."

Meatpacking plants, where workers often spend long hours in close quarters, have become a flashpoint in the pandemic. At least 50 workers have died of COVID-19 and more than 10,000 have tested positive, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

President Donald Trump last month ordered meatpacking plants to stay open to forestall meat shortages, and expressed a desire to protect plants from "liability problems." The order makes no mention of safety or employer liability, but a senior White House official told CBS News that the Labor Department was working on guidelines for both.

At the same time, critics say that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which is tasked with ensuring worker safety, has been largely hands-off during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meat processing plants vow to ramp up coronavirus precautions 02:16

"In this pandemic, OSHA has set no specific requirements to protect workers," said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA administrator who now directs the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Center. "Employers have no specific mandates from OSHA. They have CDC guidance — they can follow it or not."

Two nonprofit food safety groups sued OSHA last week and demanded that it implement mandatory worker-safety rules. "Considering that we're in the midst of deadly pandemic, the mixed messages that companies are getting from President Trump and OSHA aren't just irresponsible, they're reprehensible," Ryan Talbott, staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety.

Meatpacking plants aren't the first employers to face litigation over the death of workers from COVID-19, with companies including Walmart also having been sued. In general, however, such lawsuits are rare, said Remington Gregg, counsel for civil justice and consumer rights at the nonprofit Public Citizen.

"It's hard, in the best of times, to sue an employer and prevail," he said. And when employers are sued, a common defense is that they followed whatever government rules exist.

But "If you take away people's right to hold companies' accountable, there is a strong concern that [companies] won't do the right thing," Gregg said. "I would say that [companies] will have no incentive to do what is right, to keep their workers safe."

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