An article published by Iowa Capital Dispatch details some of the allegations against managers at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa. According to the report, managers at the plant placed bets on how many employees would become ill from COVID-19 while telling them to report for work even if ill.

The allegations are part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Isidro Fernandez, an employee at Waterloo who died on April 20. The lawsuit, which was recently amended to include new allegations, states that Tyson employees were required to work in crowded conditions in the plant, without being provided the necessary personal protective equipment to avoid contracting the virus.

Other allegations include:

  • A plant manager started a betting pool on how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.
  • An upper-level manager told supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19 and to show up for work even if they were symptomatic. He also allegedly called COVID the “glorified flu” and that “everyone is going to get it.”
  • Waterloo supervisors began to avoid the plant floor as conditions worsened, delegating authority to low-level managers with no supervisory experience.
  • Truck drivers and subcontractors who entered the plant were not required to have their temperature checked.
  • Tyson executives lobbied Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds for COVID-19 protections to shield the company from lawsuits and local authority attempts to close businesses due to outbreaks.

The Black Hawk County Health Department reported that more than 1,000 employees tested positive for COVID-19, and the Dispatch reports that at least five employees died.

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson responded to a request for comments by saying, “We’re saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families. Our top priority is the health and safety of our workers and we’ve implemented a host of protective measures at Waterloo and our other facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing Covid-19.”

While the company has declined to address the allegations in this amended lawsuit, Mickelson offered the following information:

  • “Our company formed a coronavirus task force in January and began educating our team members – in multiple languages – about the virus. Our efforts included relaxing our attendance policy and telling team members to stay home if they didn’t feel well. 
  • “We were one of the first companies to start taking team member temperatures and we began efforts to secure a supply of face masks before the CDC recommended using them.
  • “We’ve transformed our facilities with protective measures including symptom screeningsface masks, workstation dividers and social distance monitors.
  • “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.” 

“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,” said Sheriff Tony Thompson. “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.”

“People are our number one asset and first priority,” said Mayor Hart. “I am pleased that Tyson is working on protecting its employees and partnering with the community leaders for the good of all.”

  • “We partnered with Matrix Medical Network, a leading medical clinical services company, to establish an onsite clinic at our Waterloo plant to provide team members with enhanced care.
  • “We’re using testing as a tool. We launched a new, industry-leading COVID monitoring program that includes proactively testing workers who have no symptoms as well as those who do or have come in close contact with someone with the virus. We’re also expanding our occupational health staff, including a new chief medical officer position. 

Source: National Provisioner, "Wrongful death lawsuit alleges improper behavior of management of Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant"

Editor's note: The individuals said to be involved were suspended without pay, and the company has retained law firm Covington & Burling to conduct an indendent investigation led by former attorney general Eric Holder.