Officials at a meat processing plant have been suspended amid allegations they bet on how many workers would become infected from a widespread coronavirus outbreak that killed at least six employees and infected more than a thousand.
Tyson Food’s president and CEO, Dean Banks, said he was “extremely upset” about the allegations against managers at its plant in Waterloo in the US state of Iowa.
He says they do not represent the company's values, and an investigation has been launched.
“If these claims are confirmed, we’ll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behaviour from our company,” Banks said in a statement.
Banks said the accused have been suspended without pay.
A spokesman for the Arkansas-based company said it would not release their names during the investigation by former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who served 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 “organised 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 organised the pool in 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.
The lawyers represent 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 on May 25 after a six-week hospitalisation.
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.
Accused of knowingly allowing virus to spread
Democratic State representative 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.
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.
Workers told the virus was the ‘glorified flu’
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.
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.
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