As the novel coronavirus ripped through a pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, in April, Tyson Foods supervisors not only kept the facility open — they placed bets on how many workers would catch the virus, a recent wrongful death lawsuit claims.
More than 1,000 employees eventually tested positive amid the outbreak, which eventually shut down the meat-processing plant and spurred harsh condemnations from local officials who said the company had failed to provide the necessary protections for its workforce.
Isidro Fernandez, who worked in the Waterloo facility, was one of the workers who fell ill in April. He died on April 26 from complications of COVID-19, the lawsuit says. At least five other employees at the plant died, The Associated Press reported.
Fernandez’s son, Oscar Fernandez, sued Tyson Foods earlier this year over the conditions in the plant and allegations that the company misinformed workers about the extent and severity of the outbreak.
“Despite an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak, Tyson required its employees to work long hours in cramped conditions,” the lawsuit alleges. “Moreover, despite the danger of COVID-19, Tyson failed to provide appropriate personal protective equipment and failed to implement sufficient social distancing or safety measures to protect workers from the outbreak.”
The suit was first filed in August, and an amended complaint with new allegations was filed on Nov. 11. In addition to failing to properly prevent the spread of the virus, the amended complaint alleges that Tyson Foods managers turned the risk into a game.
One of the plant managers allegedly “organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19,” according to the lawsuit.
Early in the pandemic, U.S. meat-processing plants struggled to contain outbreaks inside their facilities, where employees normally work in close proximity. Complaints surfaced in the spring that the many of the nation’s largest meat-processing companies had failed to provide masks to workers who could not maintain at least 6 feet of distance from co-workers during long shifts. Tyson Foods was forced to shut down several facilities, including the Waterloo plant, for weeks.
A Tyson spokesman declined to comment on the allegations made in Fernandez’s suit. But a spokesman pointed to new precautions that were put into place after the spate of COVID-19 cases in April temporarily shut down the Waterloo plant. Tyson Foods added walk-through temperature scanners, workstation dividers, masks and social distance monitoring, the company said.
“We’re saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families,” Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson told The Washington Post in a statement. “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.”