Managers at a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, rejected pleas from local officials to temporarily shut down during the pandemic and placed bets on how many workers would end up getting COVID-19, according to a recently filed lawsuit.
The family of Isidro Fernandez, a worker at the plant who died of COVID-19, filed the lawsuit, alleging Tyson Foods downplayed the spread of the coronavirus among its workforce and incentivized employees to come in when they were sick.
"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 complaint alleges.
Then, as workers were being infected with COVID-19, a plant manager organized a "cash buy-in, winner-take-all" betting pool to see how many workers would end up testing positive for the virus, the complaint said.
The working conditions were so dire at the Waterloo plant, attorneys for Fernandez's family allege a local sheriff said they "shook [him] to the core."
Fernandez, who died on April 20, was one of about 2,800 workers at the facility, which processes more than 19,000 pigs a day, according to the complaint.
The company did eventually shut down operations by April 22 — after all of the hog carcasses from its cooler were processed. But by then, the outbreak had spread through the workforce. Five workers at the plant have so far died, and according to the complaint, the Black Hawk County Health Department has recorded more than 1,000 infections of COVID-19 among Tyson Foods employees.
"We're saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families," the company said in a statement to BuzzFeed News about the lawsuit. "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."
The company initially declined to address specific allegations in the lawsuit, including the allegations a plant manager organized the betting pool. But in an additional statement Thursday, the company announced the manager, and other workers allegedly involved in the betting pool were suspended without pay.
"We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant," Tyson said in the statement. "We expect every team member at Tyson Foods to operate with the utmost integrity and care in everything we do. We have suspended, without pay, the individuals allegedly involved and have retained the law firm Covington & Burling LLP to conduct an independent investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder. If these claims are confirmed, we'll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company."
Tyson Foods also defended its response to the pandemic, saying it implemented a task force to address the impact of the virus, educated employees in multiple languages, and told workers to stay home if they didn't feel well.
Attorneys for Fernandez's family allege that the company did the opposite, including encouraging workers to finish their shifts when they felt sick and offering bonuses to encourage employees not to call in sick.
Fernandez's family filed the lawsuit earlier this year in state court, but the case was moved to federal court after Tyson Foods argued the plant had remained open during the pandemic at the request of President Donald Trump to preserve the food supply chain.
The amended lawsuit, which was first reported by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, include allegations that the company disregarded worker safety by not providing adequate safety equipment, making them work on a crowded floor, and incentivizing employees with $500 "thank you bonuses" to keep showing up despite being sick.
Tyson Foods said in its statement that it was one of the first companies to take workers' temperatures before coming into work. The company also said it tried to obtain face masks for its workforce before it was mandated by the CDC, and partnered with a medical clinic services company to set up a clinic on site.
Attorneys for Tyson Foods have said in federal court that company managers 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."
The complaint alleges that the company failed to distribute adequate protection and only started to implement temperature checks of employees on April 6 — but even then it did not check truck drivers or subcontractors.
"By late-March or early April, Supervisory Defendants and most managers at the Waterloo Facility started to avoid the plant floor because they were afraid of contracting the virus," the complaint alleges. Instead, managers started delegating duties to "low-level supervisors."
Supervisors also told employees they had a "responsibility" to keep showing up to work "in order to ensure Americans don't go hungry."
After local inspectors visited the plant on April 10, they asked Tyson Foods officials to temporarily shut down so they could implement measures to stop the spread of the virus.
The company refused and, around that time, the plant manager "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 complaint alleges.
By April 12, two dozen employees were taken to the emergency room of the local hospital, the complaint alleges. Supervisors were told to show up to work even when they exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. When one supervisor was leaving work to get tested another manager allegedly told him to go back to work, saying, "we all have symptoms—you have a job to do."
Tyson Foods said in its statement that officials with the Black Hawk County Health Department had declined to share information about which employees had tested positive for COVID-19. The information was provided after the onsite visit, the company said, and the plant then made the decision to "idle production and work with state and local health officials to conduct facility-wide testing."