WATERLOO, IOWA – A wrongful death lawsuit against Tyson Foods Inc. alleged that managers at its pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, “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,” according to the complaint.
These actions allegedly occurred in April when the facility was dealing with an outbreak of the virus that forced Tyson to suspend operations for two weeks.
The lawsuit was filed earlier this year by the family of Isidro Fernandez, who died of COVID-19 complications in April.
Tyson responded to a request for comment but passed on specifically addressing the amended lawsuit.
“We’re saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families,” said Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson. “Our top priority is the health and safety of our workers and we’ve implemented a host of protective measures at our facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COVID-19.”
During earlier court filings, Tyson said it “vigorously disputes” the plaintiffs’ claims in this lawsuit.
Other allegations in the lawsuit include:
- John Casey, a member of upper-level management at Tyson’s Waterloo facility, allegedly directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19 and told them to show up to work even if they were showing symptoms of the virus.
- In late March, early April, most managers started to avoid the plant floor because they were afraid of contracting COVID-19. The complaint states that “managers increasingly delegated managerial authority and responsibilities to low-level supervisors with no management training or experience.”
- Tyson allegedly offered $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who turned up for every scheduled shift for three months. The lawsuit said this policy further incentivized sick workers to continue to come to work.
- Executives of Tyson allegedly lobbied, or directed others to lobby, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and other elected officials for COVID-19 related liability protections.
The company reopened the plant in early May, but Black Hawk County officials, which includes Waterloo, expressed concerns regarding working conditions for employees and workers not having proper personal protective equipment (PPE). The Black Hawk County Health Department previously reported that more than 1,000 Tyson employees of the plant contracted the virus.
Earlier in June, Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concluded that no violations were discovered at the plant.
Tyson Fresh Meats’ Waterloo pork plant employs approximately 2,800 workers and process approximately 19,500 hogs per day.
The entire lawsuit can be read here.
Mickelson included these comments from Tyson in an email statement:
“For weeks, the Black Hawk County Health Department (BHCHD) declined to share information with our company about Tyson team members with COVID-19. 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.
“As noted in a May 5 news release, the reopening followed a tour of the plant by Black Hawk County Health officials, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, UFCW Local 431 President Bob Waters and other local business leaders and a subsequent joint company and community leader review of the company’s protocol to safely resume operations.”
Local leaders made the following comments:
“I had the chance to tour the Tyson plant in Waterloo and see the additional steps taken to keep the workers safe during these trying and unknown times,” said Bob Waters, president, UFCW Local 431. “Tyson has gone above and beyond to keep their employees safe and I support the reopening of the facility. This pork plant and all of the measures they’ve put in place are an example of how to effectively set up a safe work environment for the employees.”
Sheriff Tony Thompson said, “It is my sincere hope that the Tyson Waterloo operations can once again find its footing and become a better, even more productive part of our Black Hawk County business community. The amount of obvious energy put into addressing this plant’s workspace and personal protective deficiencies became clear during our recent visit and I look forward to continuing to monitor and work with local plant leadership to ensure a cooperative effort moving forward.”
Mayor Hart added, “People are our number one asset and first priority. I am pleased that Tyson is working on protecting its employees and partnering with the community leaders for the good of all.”