Tyson managers lied about COVID-19 threat at Iowa plant

Concern about Tyson’s meatpacking plant in Waterloo is rising as Black Hawk County sees a spike in COVID-19 cases. (Photo: Dennis Magee/Courier)

DES MOINES – Senior managers at Tyson Foods’ Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant lied to interpreters about the scope of coronavirus dangers at the facility, the latest complaint in a federal lawsuit alleges.

The amended suit, filed on behalf of the families of three Tyson workers who died from COVID-19, says plant manager Tom Hart and human resources director James Hook told interpreters during an April meeting that the building had “no confirmed cases” and that Black Hawk County Health Department employees had “cleared” the plant for operation.

In fact, employees had tested positive for the virus, according to the amended suit, filed in U.S. District Court on Nov. 24. It also says Black Hawk County health officials had not cleared the plant to operate and that they were advocating to close the building.

Tyson Senior Director of Media Relations Gary Mickelson declined to comment on the new allegation and other claims in the amended lawsuit. He pointed out that the company took steps this spring to try to slow the spread of the virus at the 2,800-employee plant. It employs significant numbers of immigrant workers. 

During an April 16 news conference, as attention focused on a potential COVID-19 outbreak at the plant, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, without explicitly naming Tyson, said of “one local employer” that “there was clearly more that could and should have been done” to protect employees and implement safety practices.

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In early May, Black Hawk County public health officials reported that 1,031 of the plant’s employees had tested positive for the virus.

The new complaint alleges Tyson managers “explicitly forbid” interpreters from discussing COVID-19, except to say that the coronavirus was not impacting the plant. It also says the company removed “many interpreters” from the plant floor after the meeting with Hart and Hook in April.

Among other allegations in the amended complaint:

  • Tyson managers told U.S. Department of Agriculture food inspectors in April not to wear masks inside the plant because the appearance would “send the wrong message.”
  • At least one production worker remained on the line after vomiting.
  • A supervisor told at least one production worker to stay on the line after testing positive for the virus.

Tyson closed the Waterloo plant for two weeks beginning in late April, saying in a news release that “the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production.” It also said it had provided face masks to workers and was installing barriers to keep them separated from one another on the closely spaced processing line.

The plant reopened May 7.

Mickelson in an email Monday said the Waterloo plant employs 20 interpreters, has provided $20 million in bonuses to workers during the pandemic and keeps a mobile clinic available on site.

The new allegations come two weeks after Tyson suspended some Waterloo managers at the plant because of allegations in a previous amended version of the lawsuit that they bet on how many workers would test positive for the virus. Tyson also hired the law firm Covington & Burling to launch an investigation led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

A USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesperson declined to comment on the latest allegations. A representative for Covington & Burling did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Monday morning.

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at [email protected], 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.

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