A wrongful death lawsuit in Iowa claims employees at a Tyson Foods plant, where more than 1,000 workers were infected with the coronavirus, were ordered to report to work even if they had symptoms of COVID-19. It also accuses one manager of organizing a betting pool to wager how many employees would be infected.
The family of Isidro Fernandez, a worker at the Waterloo, Iowa, plant who died in April after contracting the virus, is suing Tyson Foods. At least four other plant workers have also died from COVID-19, according to the suit, which claims Tyson Foods demonstrated a "willful and wanton disregard for worker safety."
Among the accusations made in the lawsuit:
- Tyson allegedly didn't provide workers with sufficient face coverings or other personal protective equipment and failed to enact social distancing measures.
- Managers allegedly allowed or encouraged workers suspected of having COVID-19 to keep working. This includes one worker who allegedly vomited on the production line.
- Sick workers tested at the facility were allegedly ordered back to work until they were told the test was positive.
- Managers allegedly told workers it was their responsibility to keep working to make sure Americans didn't go hungry. (Tyson Foods CEO John Tyson did write a blog, published in multiple outlets, about concerns over the U.S. food supply chain).
- Managers allegedly told supervisors to deny they knew of COVID-19 cases at the plant.
- Plant manager Tom Hart allegedly organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers. The bet was to see how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.
- An upper-level manager named John Casey allegedly told supervisors to ignore COVID-19 symptoms, told supervisors to continue showing up for work if they were showing symptoms, and told them to make the people working under them showed up if they had symptoms. In one instance, Casey allegedly stopped a sick supervisor who was going to get tested and said "we all have symptoms -- you have a job to do."
- Tyson allegedly offered $500 bonuses to employees who showed up for every scheduled shift for three months. The suit claims this incentivized sick workers to show up.
- Managers and supervisors, fearful of contracting the virus, allegedly stayed off the plant floor and delegated responsibilities to low-level supervisors who had little training or experience.
At or around the time this was happening, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson visited the plant on April 10 and allegedly said the working conditions he saw "shook (him) to the core." Thompson and other local officials allegedly asked Tyson to close the plant, but the company kept it open.
In a statement, Tyson Foods President and CEO Dean Banks said the individuals allegedly involved have been suspended without pay and the company has hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation.
“We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant. Tyson Foods is a family company with 139,000 team members and these allegations do not represent who we are, or our CORE VALUES and Team Behaviors," Banks said. "If these claims are confirmed, we’ll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company."
Nearly two dozen employees were sent to the emergency room two days later, according to the lawsuit. County officials again asked Tyson to shut down the plant due to the outbreak, but the company allegedly refused. Four days after those workers went to the ER, the company publicly denied an outbreak at the facility, the lawsuit claims.
During this time, Tyson was saying publicly it was checking worker temperatures, providing face coverings and initiating additional cleaning measures. The company said it was also implementing more social distancing measures.
Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in June an inspection didn’t uncover any violations at the Waterloo plant.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for mental and physical pain and suffering, emotional distress, medical and burial expenses and loss to Fernandez’s family.
The Iowa Capital Dispatch reports the case was initially filed in state court due to claims that state law was violated. Tyson requested it be moved to federal court, which it was. The company reportedly claimed it had remained open "at the direction of a federal officer” -- namely President Donald Trump due to his April 28 order for such plants to keep operating.
The Capital Dispatch reports that in previous filings, Tyson said it “vigorously disputes” the plaintiffs’ claims and that it worked to follow federal guidelines.