Managers and supervisors at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, allegedly forced employees to work in unsafe conditions during the coronavirus pandemic and even took cash bets on how many workers would get sick from covid-19, according to new filings in a lawsuit brought against Tyson by the son of a worker who died. At least five workers from the Waterloo facility have died since the pandemic began and at least 20 Tyson workers have reportedly died of the coronavirus nationwide.
The lawsuit, which was uploaded in its entirety by KCCI Des Moines, was brought by the son of Isidro Fernandez, a worker at the pork plant who died of covid-19 on April 26. The suit alleges that supervisors, led by plant manager Tom Hart, organized a “cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool” on how many workers would test positive for the coronavirus.
One supervisor allegedly told employees that “it’s not a big deal; everyone is going to get it” and reportedly referred to covid-19 as a “glorified flu” when workers expressed concern. Covid-19 is more severe than the common flu and public health experts warn we still don’t know about the long term health effects in people who contract the disease but survive. So-called “long haulers” report months of sickness and fatigue after even mild initial cases of covid-19.
The new suit also claims workers were pressured to continue working, even after they were visibly sick in the Waterloo facility, the largest pork plant in the country. The Waterloo plant employs around 2,800 people.
“At least one worker at the facility vomited on the production line and management allowed him to continue working and return to work the next day,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit says that managers directed their subordinates to ignore covid-19 symptoms in employees to make sure people continued coming into work (emphasis in the original):
Defendant John Casey explicitly directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19. Mr. Casey told supervisors they had to show up to work, even if they were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, and he directed supervisors to make their direct reports come to work, even if those direct reports were showing symptoms of COVID-19.
On one occasion, Mr. Casey intercepted a sick supervisor en-route to get tested and ordered the supervisor to get back to work, adding, “we all have symptoms—you have a job to do.”
Tyson also incentivized sick workers to come in by offering a $500 “thank you bonus,” for anyone who didn’t miss a shift for three months. Most managers at the facility started avoiding the work floor of the pork plant out of fear they would get sick with covid-19, according to the lawsuit.
“Consequently, as the virus spread through the plant, the Supervisory Defendants and other managers increasingly delegated managerial authority and responsibilities to low-level supervisors with no management training or experience,” the lawsuit says.
A spokesperson for Tyson Foods declined to comment on the lawsuit early Thursday morning but told Gizmodo via email that the company is “saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families.” The spokesperson also said Tyson has “transformed” its meat processing facilities, “with protective measures including symptom screenings, face masks, workstation dividers and social distance monitors.”
Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson and local county health officials visited the pork processing plant on April 10 and lobbied to have the plant closed. A week later, Thompson was quoted in a local newspaper, the Des Moines Register, as saying that the plant should be shut down and get a deep clean. But Tyson continued to insist that it was doing everything it could to keep workers safe.
The lawsuit also alleges that Tyson didn’t provide workers with sufficient face coverings to help slow the spread of the virus within the plant. The dead worker’s son also says that his father was lied to repeatedly about both the presence of covid-19 at the facility and steps that were taken to ensure workers were safe.
Tyson installed temperature checks at its Waterloo facility around April 6, according to the lawsuit, but we now know such measures are woefully inadequate for detecting the virus, since fever isn’t necessarily present in all people who contract the virus. There were also reports at the time that some workers would take medications like Tylenol to reduce their fever to gain admittance, for fear of losing hours and pay. One worker who took Tylenol to get into work later died, according to the New York Times.
The lawsuit also alleges that Tyson successfully lobbied Congress, the White House, and the Iowa state government for liability protections. President Donald Trump ordered all meat packing plants to continue operation and declared a state of emergency in Iowa on March 24 to force meat processing plants to stay open.
The lawsuit also notes how Tyson was running ads in newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times about how keeping meat plants open was crucial to feeding America. Perversely, the lawsuit points to Tyson’s exports to China soaring 600% in the first quarter of the year. Tyson wasn’t just feeding America, it was making a lot of money exporting food to China while the first wave of the pandemic began.
The covid-19 pandemic has sickened over 11.5 million Americans and killed over 250,500, with states in the upper Midwest being particularly hard hit. Iowa has seen over 198,000 cases and 2,102 deaths since the pandemic began. At least 1,869 Americans died on Wednesday alone, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Doctors on the White House Coronavirus Task Force reportedly warned Vice President Mike Pence this week that the U.S. could see a death toll of 2,000 Americans per day by Christmas. But with 1,869 Americans dying just yesterday alone, that number seems wildly optimistic. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet and hospitalizations are expected to rise after the national holiday.
Update, 7:58 a.m. ET: Updated with comment from Tyson Foods.
Update, 2:55 p.m. ET: Tyson Foods just sent Gizmodo the following statement about the case, noting that the company has now suspended the managers involved without pay.
“We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant. Tyson Foods is a family company with 139,000 team members and these allegations do not represent who we are, or our Core Values and Team Behaviors. We expect every team member at Tyson Foods to operate with the utmost integrity and care in everything we do. 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.
Our top priority is and remains the health and safety of our team members. We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars to transform our U.S. facilities, including the Waterloo plant, with protective measures, from walk-through temperature scanners and workstation dividers to social distance monitors and always-on testing.”