WATERLOO — A wrongful death lawsuit tied to COVID-19 infections in a Waterloo pork processing plant alleges that during the initial stages of the pandemic, Tyson Foods ordered employees to report for work while supervisors privately wagered money on the number of workers who would be sickened by the deadly virus.
Earlier this year, the family of the late Isidro Fernandez sued the meatpacking company, alleging Fernandez was exposed to the coronavirus at the Waterloo plant where he worked. The lawsuit alleges Tyson Foods is guilty of a “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety.”
Fernandez, who died April 20, was one of at least five Waterloo plant employees who died of the virus. According to the Black Hawk County Health Department, more than 1,000 workers at the plant — over a third of the facility’s workforce — contracted the virus.
The lawsuit, reported by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, alleges that despite the uncontrolled spread of the virus at the plant, Tyson required its employees to work long hours in cramped conditions without providing the appropriate personal protective equipment and without ensuring workplace-safety measures were followed.
The lawsuit was recently amended and includes a number of new allegations against the company and plant officials. Among them:
- In mid-April, around the time Black Hawk County Sheriff 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.
Tyson has yet to file a response to the new allegations, and did not immediately respond to a call from the Iowa Capital Dispatch. In previous court filings, Tyson said it “vigorously disputes” the plaintiffs’ claims in this case, adding that it has “worked from the very beginning of the pandemic to follow federal workplace guidelines and has invested millions of dollars to provide employees with safety and risk-mitigation equipment.”
The lawsuit claims that while Tyson has repeatedly claimed its operations needed to remain open to feed America, the company increased its exports to China by 600% during the first quarter of 2020.
The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages for fraudulent misrepresentation and gross negligence.
The case was initially filed in state court, claiming violations of Iowa law. At Tyson’s request, the case was moved to federal court, with the company claiming it had remained open during the pandemic “at the direction of a federal officer” — President Donald Trump, who, on April 28, invoked his authority under the Defense Production Act and ordered meat and poultry processing companies to continue operating.
The nonprofit organization Public Citizen has filed an amicus brief in the case, supporting the Fernandez family’s efforts to remand the action back to state court. In its brief, Public Citizen has said that neither the Defense Production Act nor the executive order signed by President Trump had “directed” Tyson to do anything.
The Waterloo facility is Tyson’s largest pork plant in the United States. The facility employs approximately 2,800 workers who process approximately 19,500 hogs per day.
Gary Mickelson, senior director of public relations for Tyson Foods, emailed the Courier following statement late Wednesday night:
"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 we’ll pass on specifically addressing the amended lawsuit, we can tell you the following:
-- 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 screenings, face 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."
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