Tyson suspends Iowa plant managers after virus betting claim in lawsuit

Coronavirus

In this May 1, 2020, file photo, a sign sits in front of the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, file)

UPDATE: Tyson Foods suspended top managers at its largest pork plant on Thursday and launched an investigation into allegations that they bet on how many workers would get infected during a widespread coronavirus outbreak.

The company’s president and CEO, Dean Banks, said he was “extremely upset” about the allegations against managers at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa, saying they do not represent the company’s values. He said the company has retained the law firm Covington & Burling LLP to conduct an investigation, which will be led by former U.S. 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,” Banks said in a statement.

Banks said the accused have been suspended without pay. A spokesman for the Arkansas-based company said it would not release their names during the investigation by Holder, who served as attorney general for six years under President Barack Obama.

Tyson has faced a backlash over recently amended wrongful death lawsuits in which plaintiffs’ lawyers allege that Waterloo plant manager Tom Hart “organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager on how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.”

Hart allegedly organized the pool last spring as the virus spread through the Waterloo plant, ultimately infecting more than 1,000 of its 2,800 workers, killing at least six and sending many others to the hospital. The outbreak eventually tore through the broader Waterloo community.

The lawyers represent the estates of Sedika Buljic, 58; Reberiano Garcia, 60; Jose Ayala Jr., 44; and Isidro Fernandez, age unknown. Buljic, Garcia and Fernandez died in April, and Ayala died May 25after a six-week hospitalization.

The allegation, first reportedWednesday by the Iowa Capital Dispatch news site, generated anger toward Tyson.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents workers at the plant, condemned what it called “stunning safety failures.”

“This shocking report of supervisors allegedly taking bets on how many workers would get infected, pressuring sick workers to stay on the job, and failing to enforce basic safety standards, should outrage every American,” union president Marc Perrone said.

Hart didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Democratic State Rep. Ras Smith, whose district includes the plant, said Hart should be fired if the allegation is founded and that workplace safety officials should investigate.

“They were knowingly allowing this virus to spread rampantly in the plant and the community. The more we hear, the more we find out how insidious and intentional it was,” Smith said.

At the time of the alleged betting, Tyson was resisting pressure from local officials to shut down the plant as a safety precaution. The company argued the plant, which can process nearly 20,000 hogs per day, was a vital market for farmers and critical to the meat supply.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who allowed Tyson to keep the plant open and praised its executives for taking voluntary safety measures, did not answer directly Thursday when asked whether her trust in the company was misplaced. Reynolds, who signed a law in June shielding companies from liability for some COVID-19 related injuries, instead praised her administration for inspecting the plant and helping organize mass testing of workers.

A sheriff helping lead Black Hawk County’s pandemic response said that during an April tour of the plant, he was “shaken to the core” after seeing workers not social distancing or wearing adequate personal protective equipment.

Managers told workers they had a responsibility to stay on the job to ensure that Americans didn’t go hungry, even while they started avoiding the plant floor themselves because they were afraid of contracting the virus, the lawsuits allege. They increasingly delegated responsibilities to low-level supervisors with no management training or experience.

One upper-level manager, John Casey, ordered a sick supervisor who was leaving to get tested to get back to work, and told others they and their subordinates had to keep working even if they had symptoms, the lawsuits allege. Casey allegedly told workers the virus was the “glorified flu” and “not a big deal” because everyone would get it.

On a tour of the plant with Hart, Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors on April 20 saw four workers within six feet of each other in one part of the plant, records show. Tyson said it was still in the process of installing barriers at the time.

The plant soon suspended operations to allow for the mass-testing of employees and it reopened about two weeks later with new safety protocols. Iowa OSHA said in June that it found no violations of its standards during the April 20 inspection.

Tyson has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries under Iowa law is through the workers’ compensation system. Its lawyers also argue that the plaintiffs have failed to show that the deceased workers contracted the virus at the plant and not elsewhere.

UPDATE: Tyson has issued a statement in response, but did not address the specific claims filed in the lawsuit, CBS News reports.

“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.”

The statement went on to outline some of the measures they have taken since January. You can read the full list at CBS News.

EARLIER UPDATE: A lawsuit alleges a manager at a Tyson plant in Waterloo organized “a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19” while ordering employees to report to work, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

The family of Isidro Fernandez, a Waterloo man who died on April 26 from COVID-19, filed the lawsuit on November 11, which alleges Tyson Foods is guilty of a “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety.”

According to the Black Hawk County Health Department, more than 1,000 employees at the Waterloo plant contracted the virus and at least five died.

Among the allegations cited in the Iowa Capital Dispatch report:

+ In mid-April, around the time Black Hawk County Sherriff Tony Thompson visited the plant and reported the working conditions there “shook [him] to the core,” plant manager Tom Hart organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19.

+ John Casey, an upper-level manager at the plant, is alleged to have explicitly directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19, telling them to show up to work even if they were exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Casey reportedly referred to COVID-19 as the “glorified flu” and told workers not to worry about it because “it’s not a big deal” and “everyone is going to get it.” On one occasion, Casey intercepted a sick supervisor who was on his way to be tested and ordered him to get back to work, saying, “We all have symptoms — you have a job to do.” After one employee vomited on the production line, managers reportedly allowed the man to continue working and then return to work the next day.

+ In late March or early April, as the pandemic spread across Iowa, managers at the Waterloo plant reportedly began avoiding the plant floor for fear of contracting the virus. As a result, they increasingly delegated managerial authority and responsibilities to low-level supervisors who had no management training or experience. The supervisors did not require truck drivers and subcontractors to have their temperatures checked before entering the plant.

+ In March and April, plant supervisors falsely denied the existence of any confirmed cases or positive tests for COVID-19 within the plant, and allegedly told workers they had a responsibility to keep working to ensure Americans didn’t go hungry as the result of a shutdown.

+ Tyson paid out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who turned up for every scheduled shift for three months — a policy decision that allegedly incentivized sick workers to continue reporting for work.

+ Tyson executives allegedly lobbied Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for COVID-19 liability protections that would shield the company from lawsuits, and successfully lobbied the governor to declare that only the state government, not local governments, had the authority to close businesses in response to the pandemic.

Iowa Capital Dispatch

Read the entire report at IowaCapitalDispatch.com. The non-profit news site covers state government and politics and is staffed by veteran journalists from the Des Moines Register, Quad-City Times and other outlets.

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