WATERLOO — Iowa leaders are drafting legislation to enhance worker protections at the Tyson plant in Waterloo and elsewhere, they announced Monday at a virtual forum.
The legislation would give protection to whistleblowers, establish more collective bargaining rights, implement premium pay, sick leave and medical leave and shield workers from company cuts, said state Rep. Ras Smith. He said the legislation would require the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop mandatory standards for workplaces during COVID-19.
“Here, now, we have to retract immunity for Tyson,” Smith said. “They’ve shown that malice and negligence is pervasive in the culture. No longer can the state of Iowa give cover to bad actors. No longer can the state of Iowa protect bad actors at the cost of Iowa workers’ lives.”
Workers who get sick with COVID-19 are limited in lawsuits they can file against Tyson. Iowa House and Senate Republicans passed legislation in June that prevents meatpacking companies and other businesses from most liability they could otherwise face from sick workers.
Smith said Monday he hopes Republican legislators will be open to listening to his legislative proposals.
Smith joined other state leaders at the forum organized by the Iowa House Democrats. Rep. Timi Brown-Powers criticized Tyson executives and OSHA for inadequately handling complaints from workers and officials.
Sick Tyson workers in Waterloo contacted Brown-Powers expressing fears they would get fired if they didn’t return to work, she said.
“Folks — there is a problem here,” Brown-Powers said. “And we had 2,000 families affected by negligence. ... They were neglected until (Tyson) didn’t have enough people to run the lines.”
Nick Salazar, state director at the League of United Latin American Citizens, said meatpacking facilities became incubators for COVID-19. He said workers were not given enough information about how to file complaints or claims if they went to the doctor.
Tyson workers who exercised their rights to managers or HR staff “would get threatened” to come to work, Salazar said. He said it added to “confusion and issues in the facility.”
The Rev. Belinda Creighton-Smith said she heard from workers who saw co-workers pass out on production lines and get taken away in ambulances. She became upset hearing Gov. Kim Reynolds say meatpacking plants needed to stay open to prevent farmers from euthanizing unprocessed hogs.
Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, said Tyson made “record profits” during the pandemic.
“Nobody was ever in danger of not getting their pork chops,” Wishman said. “That was made up by the industry to keep people working in unsafe conditions.”
Wishman joined others in asserting that Iowa OSHA needs “very, very serious reform.”
“When you’re being ignored by management, when you’re being ignored by all branches of government, and not only that — they’re actively doing things like passing liability bills — your only recourse is to go to OSHA,” Wishman said.
Iowa OSHA is facing a federal complaint filed by the state’s American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations. The complaint says OSHA did not do enough workplace inspections, does not employ enough inspectors and provides too little information to workers who file complaints.
Community organizer Alejandro Ortiz said Tyson executives should have better prepared for COVID-19 spreading in its facilities.
“They have a direct line to the governor. They have a direct line to the president. Workers hardly have a direct line to their human resources,” Ortiz said. “It’s really scary to see how much power this industry has in our state and, really, in our nation.”
Ortiz said infections at the Tyson plant in Waterloo should hold as much weight now as they did in the spring. He said he feels there is “even less transparency” now from Tyson officials about infection rates.
Tyson officials said Monday less than 0.5% of its Waterloo workforce currently has COVID-19. The plant employs about 2,800 workers.
“Our efforts are working,” the company wrote in a statement.
The company said it is testing thousands of its workers weekly, including employees without symptoms. Tyson said it spent more than $20 million to address the pandemic at the Waterloo plant, the company’s largest pork processing facility in the United States. This included implementing walk-through temperature scanners, workstation dividers, social distance monitors and COVID-19 testing.
Tyson said its health services staff is in communication with local health officials.
“We’ve also given plant tours to government officials, including state representatives, so they had the opportunity to see firsthand the measures we’ve taken and to ask questions,” the company wrote.
State leaders at Monday’s panel said everyone will need to work to ensure Tyson employees understand the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. The company said it will offer vaccines to workers at “mobile health clinics” as soon as possible. Recent state guidance shows meatpacking workers are in the next priority group expected to be offered the vaccine.
Tyson said Monday it aims to make sure its workers are educated about the vaccine. It said third-party educational materials will be provided about the vaccines and vaccination process in multiple languages.
Ortiz said he heard “a lot of distrust within these workplaces of this vaccine.”
“I don’t necessarily believe that this rollout of the vaccine — even if these workers are prioritized — I’m still concerned about what that rollout is going to look like,” Ortiz said.
He said he hopes that “workers, immigrant families, refugee families” will “have a seat at the table” when talking about future actions at the Tyson plant. A federal lawsuit alleges that Tyson managers lied to interpreters about COVID-19, affecting the information received by the plant’s non-English speaking workers.
Salazar said meatpacking infections lead to ongoing talks in the community about who is getting sick or dying, when funerals will be held and which groups are being affected the most.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Salazar said. “Right now, the time is right to make these changes.”