Tyson workers with plastic dividers separating them on the production line. (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats)
A wrongful death lawsuit tied to COVID-19 infections in a Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant alleges that during the initial stages of the pandemic, Tyson Foods ordered employees to report for work while supervisors privately wagered money on the number of workers who would be sickened by the deadly virus.
Earlier this year, the family of the late Isidro Fernandez sued the meatpacking company, alleging Fernandez was exposed to the coronavirus at the Waterloo plant where he worked. The lawsuit alleges Tyson Foods is guilty of a “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety.”
In a written statement issued late Wednesday, Tyson said it was “saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families.” The company said it would not comment on specific allegations within the lawsuit but that its “top priority is the health and safety of our workers and we’ve implemented a host of protective measures at Waterloo and our other facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COCVID-19.”
In Virginia, Tyson has struggled with major outbreaks at its Temperanceville plant on the Eastern Shore, where a mass testing event in May found about a fifth of the facility’s workers were positive for the virus. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Virginia Mercury this spring found that during April, as many as 19 cases were being confirmed in the Temperanceville plant on a single day, with cases found in all parts of the factory. Despite the climbing numbers, workers told the Mercury and advocates that they were only informed of a handful of cases. Virginia officials also routinely refused to disclose case numbers for individual plants, citing privacy concerns, and Tyson remains the only meat processing plant in the state to voluntarily release a facility count during the pandemic.
Beginning in April, the Virginia Department of Health urged that both the Temperanceville plant and another Eastern Shore facility, Perdue’s Accomac plant, shut down for two weeks, but management and industry groups resisted the suggestion. The Tyson plant ultimately shut down for three days in late April for deep cleaning. After the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deployed a team to the Delmarva Peninsula to help halt the spread of COVID-19 in poultry plants, Virginia officials backed away from the two-week closure recommendation. Cases in Virginia’s meat and poultry processing plants remained high through May, when they totaled 550, before declining significantly in June and July.
At the Waterloo plant, Fernandez, who died on April 20, was one of at least five employees who died of the virus. According to the Black Hawk County Health Department, more than 1,000 workers at the plant — over a third of the facility’s workforce — contracted the virus.
The lawsuit alleges that despite the uncontrolled spread of the virus at the plant, Tyson required its employees to work long hours in cramped conditions without providing the appropriate personal protective equipment and without ensuring workplace-safety measures were followed.
The lawsuit was recently amended and includes a number of new allegations against the company and plant officials. Among them:
- In mid-April, around the time Black Hawk County Sherriff Tony Thompson visited the plant and reported the working conditions there “shook [him] to the core,” plant manager Tom Hart organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19.
- John Casey, an upper-level manager at the plant, is alleged to have explicitly directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19, telling them to show up to work even if they were exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Casey reportedly referred to COVID-19 as the “glorified flu” and told workers not to worry about it because “it’s not a big deal” and “everyone is going to get it.” On one occasion, Casey intercepted a sick supervisor who was on his way to be tested and ordered him to get back to work, saying, “We all have symptoms — you have a job to do.” After one employee vomited on the production line, managers reportedly allowed the man to continue working and then return to work the next day.
- In late March or early April, as the pandemic spread across Iowa, managers at the Waterloo plant reportedly began avoiding the plant floor for fear of contracting the virus. As a result, they increasingly delegated managerial authority and responsibilities to low-level supervisors who had no management training or experience. The supervisors did not require truck drivers and subcontractors to have their temperatures checked before entering the plant.
- In March and April, plant supervisors falsely denied the existence of any confirmed cases or positive tests for COVID-19 within the plant, and allegedly told workers they had a responsibility to keep working to ensure Americans didn’t go hungry as the result of a shutdown.
- Tyson paid out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who turned up for every scheduled shift for three months — a policy decision that allegedly incentivized sick workers to continue reporting for work.
- Tyson executives allegedly lobbied Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for COVID-19 liability protections that would shield the company from lawsuits, and successfully lobbied the governor to declare that only the state government, not local governments, had the authority to close businesses in response to the pandemic.
While Tyson has yet to file a formal response to the new allegations, it has said in previous court filings that it “vigorously disputes” the plaintiffs’ claims and has “invested millions of dollars to provide employees with safety and risk-mitigation equipment.”
The lawsuit claims that while Tyson has repeatedly claimed that its operations needed to remain open to feed America, the company increased its exports to China by 600% during the first quarter of 2020.
The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages for fraudulent misrepresentation and gross negligence.
The case was initially filed in state court, claiming violations of Iowa law. At Tyson’s request, the case was moved to federal court, with the company claiming it had remained open during the pandemic “at the direction of a federal officer” — President Donald Trump, who, on April 28, invoked his authority under the Defense Production Act and ordered meat and poultry processing companies to continue operating.
The nonprofit organization Public Citizen has filed an amicus brief in the case, supporting the Fernandez family’s efforts to remand the action back to state court. In its brief, Public Citizen has said that neither the Defense Production Act nor the executive order signed by President Trump had “directed” Tyson to do anything.
The Waterloo facility is Tyson’s largest pork plant in the United States. The facility employs approximately 2,800 workers who process approximately 19,500 hogs per day.
Mercury reporter Sarah Vogelsong contributed to this report.
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