Managers and other high-level employees at a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, are being sued by the family of a deceased employee on allegations that senior staffers were negligent with workers at the start of the pandemic. Among other scary claims: Supervisors at the Tyson pork plant allegedly took bets to see how many workers would contract COVID-19.
The wrongful death lawsuit says that, at the beginning stages of the pandemic, Tyson Foods made employees report for work. At the same time, their supervisors privately bet money on how many plant workers would become ill from the virus. "Around this time, Defendant Tom Hart, the Plant Manager of the Waterloo facility, 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," the lawsuit says.
Isidro Fernandez, who died in late April from complications of COVID-19, worked at the plant, the suit says. According to the lawsuit, Tyson Foods is guilty of a "willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety."
The suit also claims that managers at the plant engaged in "fraudulent misrepresentations, gross negligence and incorrigible, willful and wanton disregard for worker safety." The plant was briefly shuttered for two weeks beginning on April 22—but only after all of the hog carcasses at the plant were processed from its cooler, reports BuzzFeed News. By then, however, the virus had already began making its rounds at the plant; five people have already died from COVID-19, according to the complaint, and the Black Hawk County Health Department has recorded more than 1,000 cases of the virus, stemming from the Tyson plant.
The plant reopened on May 7, to the surprise of some, including Black Hawk County Supervisor Chris Schwartz. "It's really high," Schwartz told the Des Moines Register in May, speaking of the number of positive cases at the plant. "It's surprising to hear those numbers on the same day they're reopening the plant."
Court records show that Black Hawk County Sherriff Tony Thompson asked Tyson to shut down the plant, but the company refused. In the documents, Thompson said the plant's working conditions before the plant's shutdown "shook him to the core." Some of those conditions, according to the lawsuit, include the following instances that allegedly happened at the plant:
- Tyson transferred workers to the Waterloo Facility from its Columbus Junction plant after it shut down due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
- Tyson failed to test or adequately quarantine workers from the Columbus Junction plant before allowing them to enter the Waterloo plant.
- Supervisors "permitted or encouraged" sick and symptomatic employees, and asymptomatic employees known or suspected to have been exposed to COVID-19, to continue working at the plant—sometimes even incentivizing them with a $500 "thank-you bonus."
- 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.
- Supervisors ordered sick employees who were tested at the Waterloo Facility to return to work and continue working until they were notified that they had tested positive for COVID-19.
- Supervisors and managers began to actively avoid the plant floor in late-March and early-April "because they were afraid of contracting the virus."
After the outbreak, Steve Stouffer, president of Tyson Fresh Meats, and Tom Hart, the Waterloo plant manager, told the Des Moines Register that the plant would require employees to wear masks or face shields where protective barriers couldn't be installed at workstations. The plant also started wellness checks before workers started their shifts, and opened an on-site clinic to provide care and COVID-19 testing.
Tyson officials also released an official statement Thursday, reports KCCI News: “We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant," the statement began. "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."
The company added that the individuals directly involved with the lawsuit have been "suspended, without pay," and that they're also conducting an independent investigation about the claims—which, if are confirmed, the company says it will "take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company."
The lawsuit is seeking "punitive damages in an amount sufficient to punish the defendants for their egregious, life-threatening misconduct and to deter similar misconduct in the future."
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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