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Tyson defends conditions in Waterloo; activists calling for worker protections

Tyson defends conditions in Waterloo; activists calling for worker protections

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series

WATERLOO — Tyson Fresh Meats officials disputed employee accounts about working conditions inside its Waterloo plant, saying no employees have moved between plants and additional cleaning and protective measures are indeed in place.

Liz Croston, a spokesperson for Tyson, told The Courier on Thursday there were “several inaccuracies” in the story that ran Thursday, particularly the contention that workers from a temporarily closed plant in Columbus Junction were being moved to Waterloo with no quarantine period in between.

“We’re not moving team members between plants, so that’s inaccurate,” Croston said.

She wasn’t sure if, after an appropriate quarantine period, some workers would be moved to other plants to help with higher demand. She said she would check with her company’s human resources department.

Croston also disputed the contention there wasn’t adequate hand sanitizer in the facility or that social distancing guidelines weren’t being followed. She said where social distancing wasn’t possible, barriers were being erected.

“We’re installing work station dividers where we can and providing more break room space,” she said.

She said employees’ temperatures are taken before they enter the facility, and any employee with a fever of 100.4 or higher is “not allowed in the facility, and we send them home.”

“We absolutely are working closely with our health departments in all of our communities on this, and following CDC guidance,” Croston said. “As you know, this is an ever-changing situation, so that is key.”

She noted such information on the plant’s safety procedures was being provided in “several languages,” the company’s absentee policy was “relaxed” and those with questions or concerns are encouraged to have talk to their supervisor.

“This is a challenging time, and they’re feeling anxious,” Croston acknowledged. “We believe information is the best tool for fighting this virus. We also encourage them to tell us what they’re seeing.”

Those reassurances didn’t match what immigrant and refugee organizations across Iowa have been hearing from workers in recent days, said Erica Johnson with American Friends Service Committee of Iowa.

“People were afraid to work. They were almost being gaslighted by management,” Johnson said. “The information that is coming out is not what we’re hearing. (Workers are) actually afraid, and they need somebody to stand up and take proactive measures.”

Johnson said more than 77 organizations across the state have signed on to a #ProtectIowaWorkers statement being sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds, “demanding they take immediate steps to protect Iowa’s workers from COVID-19,” she said in a Wednesday Zoom call with media.

Other activists on the call said they’ve heard similar concerns at workplaces across the state.

“The plants have done a very good job of keeping things private from their workers, from the public. So there really isn’t knowledge of how many people have tested positive,” said Maria Gonzalez, co-organizer with Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown.

Employees at these plants “are proud of what they do,” said Rafael Morataya, director of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. “But they are not willing to risk their lives for these jobs.”

Reynolds announced 1,500 test kits for coronavirus were headed to Black Hawk County on Thursday to help with a “suspected outbreak” at the plant, during the same briefing in which she announced further restrictions on gatherings in Northeast Iowa.

More testing could go a long way toward lifting the veil of secrecy, activists say, and help workers on the front lines.

“It is the working class that keeps this state running and keeps America running, and it is the working class that will save this nation again,” said Charlie Wishman, secretary and treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “Workers may be essential, but they are never, ever expendable.”

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