A wrongful death lawsuit tied to COVID-19 infections in a Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant alleges that during the initial stages of the pandemic, Tyson Foods ordered employees to report for work while supervisors privately wagered money on the number of workers who would be sickened by the deadly virus.
Earlier this year, the family of the late Isidro Fernandez sued the meatpacking company, alleging Fernandez was exposed to the coronavirus at the Waterloo plant where he worked. The lawsuit alleges Tyson Foods is guilty of a “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety.”
In a written statement issued late Wednesday, Tyson said it was “saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families.” The company said it would not comment on specific allegations within the lawsuit but that its “top priority is the health and safety of our workers and we’ve implemented a host of protective measures at Waterloo and our other facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidelines for preventing COCVID-19.”
In Virginia, Tyson has struggled with major outbreaks at its Temperanceville plant on the Eastern Shore, where a mass testing event in May found about a fifth of the facility’s workers were positive for the virus. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Virginia Mercury this spring found that during April, as many as 19 cases were being confirmed in the Temperanceville plant on a single day, with cases found in all parts of the factory. Despite the climbing numbers, workers told the Mercury and advocates that they were only informed of a handful of cases. Virginia officials also routinely refused to disclose case numbers for individual plants, citing privacy concerns, and Tyson remains the only meat processing plant in the state to voluntarily release a facility count during the pandemic.
Beginning in April, the Virginia Department of Health urged that both the Temperanceville plant and another Eastern Shore facility, Perdue’s Accomac plant, shut down for two weeks, but management and industry groups resisted the suggestion. The Tyson plant ultimately shut down for three days in late April for deep cleaning. After the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deployed a team to the Delmarva Peninsula to help halt the spread of COVID-19 in poultry plants, Virginia officials backed away from the two-week closure recommendation. Cases in Virginia’s meat and poultry processing plants remained high through May, when they totaled 550, before declining significantly in June and July.
At the Waterloo plant, Fernandez, who died on April 20, was one of at least five employees who died of the virus. According to the Black Hawk County Health Department, more than 1,000 workers at the plant — over a third of the facility’s workforce — contracted the virus.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.