A Pennsylvania meatpacking worker, who was allegedly told not to wear a face mask on the job, has died of the coronavirus, Bloomberg News reported Thursday.
Rafael Benjamin, 64, who worked at Cargill Inc.’s pork and beef processing plant in Hazleton, Pa., told his children on March 27 that a supervisor had instructed him to take off a face mask at work because it was causing unnecessary anxiety among other employees.
On April 4, Benjamin called in sick with a cough and a fever before being taken to the hospital in an ambulance a few days later. He spent his 17th work anniversary at Cargill on a ventilator in the intensive care unit and died on April 19.
While Benjamin was in the emergency room, Cargill closed the plant to disinfect it and add protective barriers. It reopened the day after his death.
Three other workers at the Hazleton plant say they heard supervisors say masks were prohibited for various reasons, Bloomberg reported. The reasons included that only sick people should have them, that health professionals need them more and that wearing them provokes fear at the workplace.
At least 10 workers at the Pennsylvania plant told Bloomberg that supervisors and nurses on staff sent them back to work after they reported being sick.
Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said in a statement the company is "deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life" and its "sympathy is with the family."
Sullivan said Cargill is working closely with health officials and has taken extra precautions — including providing face masks to employees — which have been "the new norm" for nearly a month. He said employees are also receiving up to 14 days of additional paid leave for COVID-19 related situations.
"As we continue our work to keep people fed at this critical time, our focus is protecting the health of our employees and preventing the spread of the virus," he said.
Aaron Humes, the general manager at the Hazleton facility, said in a statement that Benjamin "was a friend and teammate to many to us at the Hazleton plant. His passing is heart-breaking and I send my condolences to his family. We will continue to honor him.”
Workers at Cargill are now reportedly wearing masks, divided by plexiglass screens and having their temperature taken twice a day. Nurses talk to those with a fever higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The coronavirus pandemic is having a growing impact on the meatpacking industry, its workers and food supplies across the country. At least 115 plants have reported infections, with at least 1 percent of the workers testing positive for the virus, leading to at least 20 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
At least 18 plants have closed due to outbreaks, leading U.S. beef and pork production to drop 40 percent in April, Will Sawyer, lead economist at agricultural lender CoBank, told Bloomberg. Sawyer expects there will be 30 percent less meat in stores by Memorial Day and 20 percent higher prices.
Last week, President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE designated meatpacking plants as critical infrastructure to prevent states from shutting down factories and pledged to provide more personal protective equipment for employees.
David MacLennan, Cargill’s chairman and CEO, told Bloomberg TV on April 28 that "it remains to be seen how we’re going to manage that dynamic between the health and emotional safety, and physical safety, of the workers in the plants and the executive order."