By Mike Dorning
Tyson Foods Inc. said it has suspended managers at an Iowa meatpacking plant accused in lawsuits of betting on how many workers would be infected in a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year.
More than 1,000 of the 2,800 employees at the Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant were infected with coronavirus by early May, and the facility eventually was temporarily shut down following a sustained campaign by local county officials and Democratic state lawmakers.
At least five workers at the plant died in the outbreak according to two wrongful death lawsuits filed against the biggest U.S. meat producer. Managers set up a betting pool on how many workers would get sick even as they pressed employees to ignore symptoms and continue to work, the federal lawsuits claim.
Dean Banks, president and chief executive officer of Tyson, said in a statement Thursday that the company had suspended “the individuals allegedly involved” without pay and retained former Attorney General Eric Holder to lead an investigation. “We are extremely upset about the accusations,” Banks said.
The portrait of cold disregard for workers as the virus spread through the pork processing facility set off furious criticism from union leaders and labor advocates. Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said it “should outrage every American.”
“The callousness that Tyson management has shown towards the lives of these essential workers, who are primarily from low-income communities and communities of color, further illustrates how our food system is broken and in desperate need of reform,” Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said in a statement.
In early April, as Tyson officials refused pleas from the local sheriff and public health officials to shut down, the plant manager, Tom Hart, “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,” lawyers allege in suits filed on behalf of the families of four workers who died.
By late March or early April, most managers at the facility were themselves avoiding the plant floor because they were afraid of contracting the virus and delegating authority to low-level supervisors with no management training or experience, the suits allege.
Another high-level manager explicitly directed supervisors to continue to come to work even if they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and tell workers reporting them to do the same. At least one worker vomited on the production line and managers allowed him to continue working and return to work the next day, according to the suits.
Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, who visited the facility with local health officials on April 10, said working conditions “shook (him) to the core,” according to the suits. Employees at the time “were crowded elbow to elbow; most without face coverings” even the though the Centers for Disease Control a week earlier had recommended all Americans wear face coverings in public, the suits allege.
Tyson resisted local officials’ repeated efforts to get the plant to shut down even after almost two dozen employees were admitted to the emergency room of a local hospital the night of April 12, according to the complaint.
Those efforts included verbal requests, an April 17 letter from 20 local officials and an April 19 complaint state lawmakers filed with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The company announced April 22 it planned to suspend operations at the plant.