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Tyson workers say they work 'sick'; clinic seeing 'tons of COVID-19'

Tyson workers say they work 'sick'; clinic seeing 'tons of COVID-19'

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series

WATERLOO — As Black Hawk County coronavirus cases have climbed dramatically in the past week, workers at Tyson Fresh Meats — many afraid of losing their jobs — allege their employer is allowing people with respiratory symptoms to continue working and are covering up the presence of the deadly virus.

Hundreds of Tyson employees in Waterloo have refused to work in recent days, according to multiple people who have reached out to The Courier. They say the company is not protecting workers from coronavirus spread.

Company officials deny there is a coronavirus outbreak at the Waterloo plant, and say they have provided protective measures deemed necessary by local and state health officials to ward off such an outbreak.

“Protecting our team members is a top priority for us,” Liz Croston, a spokesperson for Tyson, said Tuesday. “We are continually educating our team members about the importance of social distancing, and we’ve implemented a variety of measures to protect our team members during this challenging time.”

The Iowa Department of Public Health didn’t confirm or deny the presence of coronavirus cases at the Waterloo plant, saying as of Wednesday there is not an official outbreak.

“We have not reported an outbreak at this time,” said IDPH spokesperson Amy McCoy. The state says an outbreak is 10% or more of employees testing positive.

At Peoples Community Health Clinic, where medical staff say many Tyson employees go for medical care because the clinic has robust interpreting services for Tyson’s large non-English speaking population, a staffer privately sounded the alarm at a growth in coronavirus cases in recent days.

“Our clinic is seeing tons of COVID-19,” one staff member said, adding cases at Peoples accounted for “half or more” of the county’s total. The employee is not authorized to speak to the media.

Peoples Clinic co-medical director Dr. Sharon Duclos declined comment through a spokesperson Wednesday.

A person who teaches English to some Tyson workers said Tuesday those workers say employees from closed plants were being moved to Waterloo with no quarantine time in between.

A separate individual Wednesday said at least some positive cases in Black Hawk County were residents of Columbus Junction. Tyson’s Columbus Junction location has been closed for an outbreak since April 6.

The teacher said workers also said they were not being provided with personal protection equipment and alleged hand sanitizer stations were not being filled. The teacher did not want to go on the record for fear of outing students and risking their jobs.

“Management is allowing employees who are sick, and the company knows that they are sick, to come to work,” the teacher said workers allege.

One Tyson employee said management knows the scope of the problem but is afraid of a work stoppage, and agreed with others that safety measures are inadequate to prevent coronavirus spread.

“We have had actual managers confirm that there are cases in the plant, but they don’t want to cause panic and cause people to not come to work,” the employee said Wednesday, declining to go on the record for fear of being fired.

Other workers told The Courier of at least five cases of coronavirus inside the plant.

At least one employee of Tyson in Waterloo has been hospitalized since Sunday in the intensive care unit at UnityPoint-Allen Hospital in Waterloo, his sister confirmed to The Courier on Wednesday.

She said Tyson was notified of her brother’s symptoms last week, and further notified that he tested positive.

“He has been calling and emailing me for weeks expressing fear he was going to get COVID-19 due to the very lax protocols at Tyson,” the sister said.

When he did catch the virus her brother had to keep working until, finally, he was hospitalized.

“He can not afford to lose his job,” she said.

But Croston told The Courier on Tuesday that Tyson is encouraging workers to stay at home if they were sick.

She said the company is “working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation.” Tyson has relaxed its policy of penalizing workers for absenteeism and eliminated the waiting period for short-term disability.

On Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she’s asking federal agencies and business leaders for help preventing coronavirus outbreaks at Iowa food processing plants and responding to outbreaks at Columbus Junction and Tama where scores of workers are already infected.

A previous version of this story incorrectly noted the guidance for an outbreak was three or more confirmed coronavirus cases. That guidance is for long-term care facilities only. For workplaces, the guidance is 10% or more of a workforce.

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