Dive Brief:

  • A Tyson Foods manager at a Waterloo, Iowa pork processing plant organized a “cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19,” a wrongful death lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa last week claims. The complaint was filed by the family of Isidro Fernandez, a Tyson worker in Waterloo who died from complications of COVID-19 on April 26.
  • The suit also accuses Tyson of requiring employees to work long hours in “cramped conditions,” despite the danger of COVID-19. It says the company failed to provide protective equipment and other precautions early on in the pandemic to protect workers from the virus, which resulted in Fernandez and more than 1,000 Tyson employees getting infected at the Waterloo plant. The lawsuit was originally filed in Iowa state court in August before Tyson asked to move it to federal court, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported
  • Tyson’s CEO Dean Banks said in a statement the company is “extremely upset about the accusations.” The individuals said to be involved were suspended without pay, and the company retained law firm Covington & Burling to conduct an independent investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder. “If these claims are confirmed, we’ll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company,” Banks said. 

Dive Insight:

Since the pandemic began, large meat processing companies have been in the hot seat. Employees and activists claimed they waited too long to implement precautions and shutter plants, while thousands of workers were infected with COVID-19 nationwide. But this new suit says managers at Tyson’s Waterloo plant both failed to protect workers and bet on how many would get sick.  

Tyson’s Waterloo plant is the company’s largest pork plant in the U.S., employing roughly 2,800 workers and processing about 19,500 hogs per day. Fernandez was one of at least five Waterloo plant employees who died of the virus. The lawsuit details a timeline for its accusations, which it says led to more workers getting sick. 

​The lawsuit claims when Tyson installed temperature check stations to scan people entering the facility in early April, managers didn’t require truck drivers and subcontractors to be checked. It also says supervisors avoided the plant floor in March and April to protect themselves, saying they “increasingly delegated managerial authority and responsibilities to low-level supervisors with no management training or experience.” Managers also ordered sick employees to continue working until they were notified they tested positive for coronavirus, the lawsuit claims.  

​In early April, Black Hawk County health officials visited the facility and reported seeing workers crowded elbow-to-elbow, many without face coverings, the lawsuit says. After nearly two dozen Tyson workers were admitted to the emergency room, local health and elected officials lobbied Tyson to close the plant on April 17, the suit claims. Days later, after Waterloo employees complained of unsafe working conditions, Iowa state lawmakers filed an OSHA complaint against the company. 

A Tyson spokesman said in an email that the Black Hawk County Health Department did not share information with the company about Tyson team members with COVID-19 for weeks. 

“The first time BHCHD officials finally provided us with a list of names was the day after they and other local officials asked us to suspend plant operations. Once we started receiving the case information, we made the decision to idle production and work with state and local health officials to conduct facility-wide testing,” spokesperson Gary Mickelson said. 

Tyson announced it indefinitely suspended operations at its Waterloo pork plant on April 22. The company started limited operations there on May 7, The Gazette reported. Before the reopening, local officials and unions toured the plant, Tyson said in a press release.

The suit also accuses Tyson of lobbying the White House for liability protections as early as March. In late April, Tyson’s chairman placed a full-page advertisement in major newspapers saying its supply chain was breaking. President Donald Trump then issued an executive order to designate meat plants as “critical infrastructure” and keep doors open. Critics said the order endangered workers

These accusations are a major hurdle for Banks, who just started at the helm of the company in October. Depending on what its independent investigation finds and how this lawsuit pans out, there could be more challenges to come. 

Tyson said in an email it has implemented precuations including symptom screenings, face masks, workstation dividers and social distance monitors. It also partnered with Matrix Medical Network to establish an onsite clinic at its Waterloo plant. In July, Tyson announced a testing and monitoring program at all 140 of its production facilities, through which it tests workers for the coronavirus weekly. 

Early in the pandemic, meat plants struggled to contain outbreaks at their plants because workers typically process meat standing close together. But companies have since spent hundreds of millions on precautions. Tyson recently reported $540 million in direct incremental COVID-19 costs for fiscal year 2020, including about $300 million in bonuses and other benefits for workers. 

This is not the first lawsuit to be filed against meat companies for their actions during the pandemic and likely will not be the last. Both employees who contracted the virus and families of workers who died from the coronavirus have started to file claims. The family of a Tyson worker in Texas also filed a wrongful death complaint in June, while JBS and Smithfield have faced similar lawsuits about working conditions.

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