As the coronavirus swept through a pork processing plant in Iowa, managers were callously indifferent—not only keeping the facility open despite state demands for its closure, but organizing a cash buy-in betting pool on how many employees would fall ill, according to a lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed in Iowa federal court, argues that more than 1,000 employees at the Tyson Foods facility in Waterloo eventually contracted the virus, five of whom died before the plant was eventually shut down on April 22.
During that time, managers kept denying the virus had run rampant at the plant and forced COVID-positive employees to come into work, according to the suit. They likened the virus to a “glorified flu,” offered bonuses if workers didn’t call in sick, and even forced one employee to keep working after he vomited on the production line.
Four days after the pork plant’s closure, one of its COVID-positive employees, Isidro Fernandez, died. His son, Oscar Fernandez, filed the lawsuit against Tyson Foods earlier this year over the plant’s shocking conditions, alleging the company didn’t inform workers about the severity of the outbreak. (The plant was reopened less than two weeks later.)
One sheriff who visited the facility said the conditions “shook [him] to the core,” the lawsuit states. Employees worked long hours in cramped conditions, without appropriate PPE or sufficient social distancing.
“As a result, Isidro Fernandez and more than 1,000 other Tyson employees were infected with COVID-19 at the Waterloo Facility,” the lawsuit says.
On Wednesday, the suit was amended to include several astonishing allegations against the company, including one manager regularly referring to COVID-19 as the “glorified flu.” “It’s not a big deal; everyone is going to get it,” the manager allegedly told workers.
And even more shocking, plant manager Tom Hart “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,” the lawsuit states.
Days later, nearly two dozen Tyson employees were admitted to the emergency room at a local hospital and over 620 people in the county had tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, Black Hawk County Health Department Director Dr. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye said at least 90 percent of the deaths in the county were linked to the Tyson plant.
A Tyson spokesman declined to comment on the allegations leveled in Fernandez’s suit but said new precautions were put in place in April. The company is “saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families,” he said.
But hours later, Tyson Foods said that several people named in the lawsuit, including Hart, had been suspended without pay and the company planned to conduct an “independent investigation” led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.
“We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant,” the company said in a statement. “If these claims are confirmed, we’ll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company.”
According to the lawsuit, the Waterloo facility is Tyson’s largest pork plant in the country, with about 2,800 workers who process almost 20,000 pigs daily. That high production value, however, was at risk in late March, when COVID-19 began to spread through the Iowa facility.
The lawsuit states that while the company’s top executives knew about the spread, Tyson Foods didn’t provide workers with sufficient face masks, respirators, or PPE. Even after the plant installed temperature check stations, supervisors still denied the existence of confirmed cases within the plant, keeping the growing surge under wraps and falsely telling employees “they had a responsibility to keep working in order to ensure Americans don’t go hungry.”
By April, cases were so rampant that Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson urged Tyson Foods to shut after visiting the facility—which supervisors refused.
“According to Sheriff Thompson, working conditions at the Waterloo Facility ‘shook [him] to the core.’ Workers were crowded elbow to elbow; most without face coverings,” the lawsuit states.
Around the time two dozen workers were admitted to the ER, local officials again asked the plant to shut, but the company refused again—and even publicly denied a COVID-19 outbreak.
And when Iowa state lawmakers filed an OSHA complaint on April 19, which stated employees had complained of unsafe working conditions, supervisors kept letting sick employees come to work.
“At least one worker at the facility vomited on the production line and management allowed him to continue working and return to work the next day,” the lawsuit states. One upper-level manager, John Casey, “explicitly directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19.”
Casey “told supervisors they had to show up to work, even if they were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, and he directed supervisors to make their direct reports come to work, even if those direct reports were showing symptoms of COVID-19,” the lawsuit alleges.
In one horrifying example included in the lawsuit, Casey allegedly “intercepted a sick supervisor en-route to get tested and ordered the supervisor to get back to work, adding, ‘we all have symptoms—you have a job to do.’”
Supervisors and managers also regularly downplayed the severity of the virus, telling employees that their co-workers were just sick with the flu and warning them not to discuss COVID-19 while on the clock. Then, in an attempt to appease the growing animosity within the plant, the company offered $500 “thank you bonuses” to those who completed every shift they were assigned in three months.
The lawsuit also notes that high-level executives at Tyson heavily lobbied the Trump administration for COVID-19 liability protections, some even dining at the White House and others participating in phone calls with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in March and April.
Ultimately, Tyson executives “successfully lobbied, or directed others to lobby” Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds to issue an executive order stating that only the state government, not local governments, had the authority to close businesses in northeast Iowa, including the Waterloo plant, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages for fraudulent misrepresentation and gross negligence for placing thousands of employees at risk.
“At the time of filing this lawsuit, more than 8,500 Tyson employees have contracted COVID-19, more than double the number for any other company, and at least 20 have died nationwide,” the lawsuit states. “A grossly disproportionate number of Tyson workers have been infected with COVID-19 compared to the general population of the United States.”