UPDATED Nov. 19, 6:02 p.m.: Tyson Foods released a statement saying they’re suspending the managers involved and conducting an investigation.
“We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant,” the press release said. “We have suspended, without pay, the individuals allegedly involved and have retained the law firm Covington & Burling LLP 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.”
Original story: Managers at Tyson Foods’ largest pork processing plant allegedly created a “winner-take-all” betting game on how many employees would contract the coronavirus at the height of the pandemic, all while encouraging them to work in crowded, unsanitary conditions.
The game began in March, according to a federal lawsuit filed this month by Oscar Fernandez, the son of a plant worker who died of COVID-19 complications in late April. Fernandez claims that Tyson and Waterloo plant manager Tom Hart not only failed to provide a safe work environment for its approximately 2,800 workers, the managers made cash wagers on how many employees would catch the deadly disease.
Fernandez is suing the company and management at the plant for gross negligence.
“Tyson failed to provide appropriate personal protective equipment and failed to implement sufficient social distancing or safety measures to protect workers from the outbreak,” the lawsuit claims. “As a result, Isidro Fernandez and more than 1,000 other Tyson employees were infected with COVID-19 at the Waterloo Facility.”
Workers in meat processing factories often work in close proximity to each other, breathing heavily due to the physical demands of the job, in moist, cold interiors. Many of the workers at the plant Waterloo plant are non-English speakers, according to the lawsuit, creating another barrier between workers and the severity of the outbreak.
Instead of trying to reduce the spread, Hart and other managers mentioned in the lawsuit publicly denied that an outbreak was underway.
For three weeks, Waterloo officials including Black Hawk County Sheriff, elected officials and health officials repeatedly demanded that Tyson shut down the plant after seeing the horrid working conditions, which Tyson refused. The company even transferred workers from a plant in Georgia that had been shut down because of the virus to the Waterloo plant instead of quarantining them. Tyson would eventually close down the plant on May 4 before resuming limited production three days later.
The lawsuit also alleges that Tyson managers demanded its sick employees continue working even while exhibiting symptoms. The lawsuit claims managers told employees who tested for COVID-19 to continue working until they received test results.
“We all have symptoms—you have a job to do,” plant manager John Casey told one sick worker on his way to get tested, according to the lawsuit.
As early as January, Tyson created a coronavirus task force, according to the lawsuit, after seeing the impact the disease had on its factories in China. Despite the jumpstart on the issue, Tyson, the largest meat processor in the country, has struggled to manage the pandemic since it reached the U.S. earlier this year. Outbreaks have occurred in its plants in Georgia, Washington, Nebraska, and Iowa in the past.
In May, VICE News reported a Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Tyson plant had almost 600 workers test positive for COVID-19. That same month, more than 1,000 workers at the Waterloo plant had contracted the virus, according to the Des Moines Register.
Several lawsuits from the families of workers who died have followed the company’s poor management during the pandemic. Last month, three children of a worker at the Columbus Junction, Iowa plant filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company, according to the Des Moines Register. In June, the families of three Waterloo workers who died of coronavirus also sued the company, according to the Associated Press.
Tyson Foods did not respond to a request for comment.