IOWA CITY, IOWA (AP) — Tyson Foods suspended top officials at its largest meat 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 United States (US) Attorney General Eric Holder.
“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 managers have been suspended without pay. He travelled 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 former US 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 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.
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 hospitalisation.
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 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 was a vital market for farmers and critical to the meat supply.
Republican Governor Kim Reynolds, who allowed Tyson to keep the plant open and praised its executives for taking voluntary safety measures, did not answer directly on 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.