Tyson Foods sued after employee pool on COVID transmission

Tonya Pendleton
·4 min read

Supervisors at a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa are accused of organizing betting pools on coronavirus infections

Chicken plant workers were among the early casualties of the coronavirus pandemic as close quarters and lack of worker protections made them vulnerable to infection. Now, one of the largest meat companies in the U.S. is being sued after a supervisor is alleged to have arranged a betting pool to see which employee would get sick next.

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Tyson Foods is the subject of a wrongful death suit after supervisors at its Waterloo, Iowa plant are said to have taken bets on who might be next as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the workforce. According to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, the family of Isidro Fernandez –who died on April 20 –was one of five workers who died from the virus at the plant. They are suing, alleging that Tyson Foods forced workers back to the plant without ensuring they had safety protection in place and is guilty of “willful and wanton disregard of workplace safety.”

The Waterloo plant is the largest pork processing plant in the country according to WCF‘s report. The plant’s 2800 employees process 190,500 hogs every day. Out of those 2800 workers, 1,000 are believed to have contracted COVID-19.

In a statement provided to the WCF, Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson said he could not comment on the lawsuit but said that Tyson initiated safety procedures to help protect workers, including temperature checks, facemasks, workplace dividers and social distancing measures and didn’t reopen the plant until it was signed off on by the local meatworker’s union and government officials.

In this photo illustration, Tyson Food and Hillshire Brands food products are seen on May 29, 2014 in Miami, Florida. Tyson Foods made a $ 6.8 billion all-cash proposal to aquire Hillshire Brands whose brands include among others Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park hot dogs. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
In this photo illustration, Tyson Food and Hillshire Brands food products are seen on May 29, 2014 in Miami, Florida. Tyson Foods made a $ 6.8 billion all-cash proposal to aquire Hillshire Brands whose brands include among others Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park hot dogs. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“We’re saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families. 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,” Mickelson said in the statement.

However, the lawsuit includes allegations that plant manager Tom Hart established a winner-take-all betting pool to bet on how many employees would contract the virus; that another upper-level manager, John Casey, prioritized keeping even sick workers on the floor. Casey is accused of telling supervisors to ignore any employee showing symptoms and downplayed the virus, calling it the “glorified flu.”

Furthermore, supervisors afraid of getting sick stayed off the plant floor, delegating their responsibilities to lower-level staff who did not mandate temperature checks. Supervisors are also alleged to have falsely denied there were positive tests at the plant and told workers it was their duty to provide food for America, even though Tyson’s exports to China went up 600% in the first quarter of 2020.

Despite the rampant reports of infections and deaths at meat processing plants all around the country, President Donald Trump ordered companies to reopen shuttered plans on April 28, citing the Defense Protection Act, according to the report. The lawsuit was first filed in state court, then moved to federal court at Tyson Foods’ request. Non-profit Public Citizen has filed an amicus brief to move the case back to state courts, alleging that Tyson Foods was not forced to reopen despite Trump’s order.

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Tyson has not yet answered the most recent claims but lean on their stated safety record and say they vigorously dispute the allegations in the suit, and that they have “worked from the very beginning of the pandemic to follow federal workplace guidelines and has invested millions of dollars to provide employees with safety and risk-mitigation equipment.”

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