A wrongful death lawsuit tied to COVID-19 infections in a Waterloo pork processing plant alleges that during the initial stages 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.”
Fernandez, who died on April 20, was one of at least five Waterloo plant 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 lawsuit alleges that despite the uncontrolled spread of the virus at the plant, Tyson required its employees to work long hours in cramped conditions without providing the appropriate personal protective equipment and without ensuring workplace-safety measures were followed.
The lawsuit was recently amended and includes a number of new allegations against the company and plant officials. Among them:In mid-April, around the time Black Hawk County Sherriff Tony Thompson visited the plant and reported the working conditions there “shook [him] to the core,” plant manager Tom Hart organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19.
John Casey, an upper-level manager at the plant, is alleged to have explicitly directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19, telling them to show up to work even if they were exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Casey reportedly referred to COVID-19 as the “glorified flu” and told workers not to worry about it because “it’s not a big deal” and “everyone is going to get it.” On one occasion, Casey intercepted a sick supervisor who was on his way to be tested and ordered him to get back to work, saying, “We all have symptoms — you have a job to do.” After one employee vomited on the production line, managers reportedly allowed the man to continue working and then return to work the next day.
In late March or early April, as the pandemic spread across Iowa, managers at the Waterloo plant reportedly began avoiding the plant floor for fear of contracting the virus. As a result, they increasingly delegated managerial authority and responsibilities to low-level supervisors who had no management training or experience. The supervisors did not require truck drivers and subcontractors to have their temperatures checked before entering the plant.
In March and April, plant supervisors falsely denied the existence of any confirmed cases or positive tests for COVID-19 within the plant, and allegedly told workers they had a responsibility to keep working to ensure Americans didn’t go hungry as the result of a shutdown.
Tyson paid out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who turned up for every scheduled shift for three months — a policy decision that allegedly incentivized sick workers to continue reporting for work.
Tyson executives allegedly lobbied Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for COVID-19 liability protections that would shield the company from lawsuits, and successfully lobbied the governor to declare that only the state government, not local governments, had the authority to close businesses in response to the pandemic.
A corporate system that does not value workers’ lives does not value animals either. Concealment hides the conditions of animals from consumers along with the conditions of human labor. As consumers, we buy our hamburger or chicken or fish, but what do we know about the animal? Do we even recognize it as the same animal in the barnyard? Cows and chickens are cute. What do they have to do with the ground beef at Safeway or the chicken nuggets at McDonald’s? We can laugh at Chick-Fil-A commercials with the cows trying to get us to eat chicken, but the vague awareness that we are eating actual animals goes little further than the notion that cows can’t spell. In the 19th century, there were slaughterhouses right in New York City, and Chicago had its enormous packing district. Those animals were not necessarily treated well, but at least consumers knew about their meat. Today, corporations have turned animals into industrialized products, unconcerned with their health, comfort, or treatment.
Public knowledge of working conditions and animal treatment is the food industry’s worst nightmare. This is the motivation behind a series of so-called “ag-gag” bills to criminalize undercover footage of industrial farming operations. Iowa, Utah, and Missouri have these laws and Idaho joined them in February 2014. In Idaho, it is now illegal for anyone not employed by the farm—and anyone who misrepresented themselves to get hired—from recording what happens on that farm with the express consent of the owner. Violators could receive a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. Agribusiness pushed for the law after an undercover video showed workers beating and sexually abusing cattle at an Idaho dairy operation. Animal rights groups are challenging on constitutional grounds, but it is a tremendous advance in the concealment of industrial activity. If laws protect what happens in meat factories, why would they not give all factory owners legal standing for concealment? Why not make the documentation of violations of workers’ rights in any industry a crime? The dumping of pollution? This is a very scary legal aid to corporations concealing their operations.
A system that abuses animals also abuses workers. The food production system has targeted the most marginalized groups in the country to work in these plants, especially undocumented migrants. This was not inevitable. We once knew more about how and who raised and processed our meat. Until after the Civil War, most Americans lived on farms or in small towns. Food production was largely local, supplemented by larger national and international markets for foods like sugar and coffee. Meat was especially local. People wanted to see the meat they bought, especially their beef. Given that fresh beef goes bad quickly, consumers did not trust anything that was not butchered locally. Until the late nineteenth century, people raised their own animals, bought meat from nearby farmers, or went to butchers who knew where the animal came from. Even big cities like Boston and New York had slaughterhouses to provide freshly-slaughtered beef.
What can I say? Ag execs don’t care about the lives of workers or animals, assuming they can even tell the difference between the two.