WATERLOO — A wrongful death lawsuit tied to COVID-19 infections at Tyson Foods’ largest pork plant alleges that the plant manager organized a pool for managers to bet on how many workers would get infected during a coronavirus outbreak.
The lawsuit was filed by the family of the Tyson worker Isidro Fernandez, who died of COVID-19. It also claims that supervisors were told not to acknowledge COVID-19 symptoms and workers were given bonuses for showing up to work every day — possibly encouraging sick people to clock in.
Tyson announced in a Thursday statement that it suspended without pay plant manager Tom Hart — accused of organizing the betting pool — and upper-level manager John Casey, who allegedly called COVID-19 the "glorified flu" and told workers "it’s not a big deal" and "everyone is going to get it." One 45-year-old Tyson worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said he saw the men walked out of the plant Thursday.
Tyson said it hired law firm Covington & Burling LLP to independently investigate the workers named in the lawsuit. It will be led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, according to the company statement.
The Tyson worker said he was told by supervisors to not be afraid of COVID-19 and not to get tested for the virus. He said he knows three co-workers who got sick and never returned to work.
Grocery stores are limiting meat purchases to prevent hoarding, which experts say could exacerbate any shortage caused by a slowdown at meat processing plants. Store owners hope to prevent a situation akin to the runs on toilet paper just as the COVID-19 pandemic began.
"It’s unsafe every day. It’s a scary moment coming here," he said. "But I got bills to pay, so it’s like — you have a choice, but it’s either be without a job or get sick."
The worker, who relies on his paycheck to feed his children, said he was provided $500 monthly bonuses for coming to work every day. He said his department was told they would lose their jobs if they didn't come to work. County supervisor Chris Schwartz said workers told him that attendance bonuses were being offered to them, too.
The worker described Tyson supervisors as "vengeful" and said they don't allow workers to speak publicly about plant conditions. One worker told a Courier reporter Thursday that they might be "beaten up" or "chased out" for talking to workers.
“I came straight from the prison system to here," the worker said. "Coming from the prison system dealing with COVID inside of prison, to coming out here to a plant that has a high percentage of COVID — it’s scary because I got children, and I’m like taking my chances. I got to pay bills."
Schwartz called for Waterloo's meat processing plant to close in the spring during COVID-19. More than 1,000 of Tyson's 2,800 Waterloo workers got COVID-19 in the spring, leading the company to temporarily stop operations and reopen with some new safety measures.
"If these allegations are true, it’s really disgusting and it takes a very cold heart to make wagers on the lives of your employees," Schwartz said. "We knew that early on Tyson was being a bad actor in terms of the safety of their employees, and so as shocking and horrific as some of this news is, if these allegations are true, it's unfortunately not surprising."
In its statement, Tyson said the lawsuit's allegations do not represent the values of the company.
(CNN) -- Grocery prices have skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic. That has Americans spending more at the supermarket than they have in years.
"We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant," the statement said. "We expect every team member at Tyson Foods to operate with the utmost integrity and care in everything we do."
The Tyson worker said he thinks the company needs to shut down the Waterloo plant to clean and handle the allegations. He said they should pay people during the pause in operations.
"I don’t like the fact that they keep things covered up and stuff," the Tyson worker said. "At the end of the day, if somebody has the virus or has COVID, they shouldn’t be told to not get tested. They should be told to get tested and come back when everything is done."
The county supervisor said talking to Tyson officials "seems pretty fruitless" and he stays in constant communication with plant workers.
If the allegations are proven true, Schwartz said "it's time to clean house." He said the company should examine its corporate and local management officials.
A 21-year-old Tyson worker, who recently started the job, asked to remain anonymous. He said a few people in his hiring class tested positive for COVID-19. He said supervisors tell people with the virus to leave work, along with others who were near them. They are advised to quarantine for 10 days, he said.
"But I don't know how that actually works," the worker said. "Hopefully I don't get it, though."
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