IOWA CITY, Iowa — Tyson Foods suspended top officials at its largest pork plant on Thursday and launched an investigation into allegations that they bet on how many workers would get infected during a widespread coronavirus outbreak.
The company’s president and CEO, Dean Banks, said he was “extremely upset” about the allegations against managers at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa, saying they do not represent the company’s values. He said Tyson has retained the law firm Covington & Burling LLP to conduct an investigation, which will be led by former U.S. 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,” Banks said in a statement.
Banks said the accused managers have been suspended without pay. He traveled to Waterloo on Thursday to explain the company’s response to workers, who were dismissed early from the first shift, Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said.
Mickelson said the Arkansas-based company would not release the names of those suspended during the investigation by Holder, who served as attorney general for six years under President Barack Obama.
Tyson has faced a backlash over recently amended wrongful death lawsuits in which plaintiffs’ lawyers allege that Waterloo plant manager Tom Hart “organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager on how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.”
Hart allegedly organized the pool last spring as the virus spread through the Waterloo plant, ultimately infecting more than 1,000 of its 2,800 workers, killing at least six and sending many others to the hospital. The outbreak eventually tore through the broader Waterloo community.
Maine saw an outbreak associated with Tysons Foods in Maine, when a plant in Portland saw 51 employees test positive with the coronavirus. That total represented roughly an eighth of the plant’s 391-person full-time workforce, predominantly made up of immigrant workers.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mel Orchard said he was “happily surprised” by Tyson’s moves and that he hopes Holder will conduct a broad investigation into the company’s virus safety efforts.
“It’s not going to change what happened. These people are gone, but can we prevent future deaths?” Orchard said. “I hope so. Because there is a reckoning coming.”
Orchard represents the estates of Sedika Buljic, 58; Reberiano Garcia, 60; Jose Ayala Jr., 44; and Isidro Fernandez, age unknown. Buljic, Garcia and Fernandez died in April, and Ayala died May 25 after a six-week hospitalization.
Orchard said the legal team uncovered the betting allegations during interviews with former Tyson officials.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents workers at the plant, condemned what it called “stunning safety failures.”
“This shocking report of supervisors allegedly taking bets on how many workers would get infected, pressuring sick workers to stay on the job, and failing to enforce basic safety standards, should outrage every American,” union president Marc Perrone said.
Hart didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Democratic State Rep. Ras Smith, whose district includes the plant, said Hart should be fired if the allegation is founded and that workplace safety officials should investigate.
“They were knowingly allowing this virus to spread rampantly in the plant and the community. The more we hear, the more we find out how insidious and intentional it was,” Smith said.
At the time of the alleged betting, Tyson was resisting pressure from local officials to shut down the plant as a safety precaution. The company argued the plant, which can process nearly 20,000 hogs per day, was a vital market for farmers and critical to the meat supply.
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who allowed Tyson to keep the plant open and praised its executives for taking voluntary safety measures, did not answer directly Thursday when asked whether her trust in the company was misplaced. Reynolds, who signed a law in June shielding companies from liability for some COVID-19 related injuries, instead praised her administration for inspecting the plant and helping organize mass testing of workers.
A sheriff helping lead Black Hawk County’s pandemic response said that during an April tour of the plant, he was “shaken to the core” after seeing workers not social distancing or wearing adequate personal protective equipment.
Managers told workers they had a responsibility to stay on the job to ensure that Americans didn’t go hungry, even while they started avoiding the plant floor themselves because they were afraid of contracting the virus, the lawsuits allege. They increasingly delegated responsibilities to low-level supervisors with no management training or experience.
One upper-level manager, John Casey, ordered a sick supervisor who was leaving to get tested to get back to work, and told others they and their subordinates had to keep working even if they had symptoms, the lawsuits allege. Casey allegedly told workers the virus was the “glorified flu” and “not a big deal” because everyone would get it.
On a tour of the plant with Hart, Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors on April 20 saw four workers within six feet of each other in one part of the plant, records show. Tyson said it was still in the process of installing barriers at the time.
The plant soon suspended operations to allow for the mass-testing of employees and it reopened about two weeks later with new safety protocols. Iowa OSHA said in June that it found no violations of its standards during the April 20 inspection.
Tyson has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries under Iowa law is through the workers’ compensation system. Its lawyers also argue that the plaintiffs have failed to show that the deceased workers contracted the virus at the plant and not elsewhere.
Story by Ryan J. Foley.