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Lawsuit claims Tyson Foods managers bet money on employees getting COVID-19

Waterloo, Iowa — The son of a Tyson Foods employee who died from COVID-19 complications claims in a lawsuit filed this week that company managers bet money on how many employees would test positive for the virus, reports CBS Des Moines affiliate KCCI-TV.

Tyson denies many of the allegations in the suit.

Isidro Fernandez, who died April 26, worked at Tyson's Waterloo facility.

The suit claims Tyson managers engaged in "fraudulent misrepresentations, gross negligence and incorrigible, willful and wanton disregard for worker safety."

Defendants include Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson, CEO Noel White, President Dean Banks, President Stephen Stouffer, Vice President Tom Brower, Manager Tom Hart, Safety Lead Bret Tapken and managers Cody Brustkern and John Casey. Court records show that Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson advised the company to shut the Waterloo plant, but it didn't. Thompson said the plant's working conditions "shook him to the core," according to the documents.

"Around this time, Defendant Tom Hart, the Plant Manager of the Waterloo facility, organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19," the lawsuit says.

Officials said on April 12 that about two dozen employees were admitted into the local emergency room. That week, the plant was temporarily closed.

"Defendant John Casey explicitly directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19. Mr. Casey told supervisors had to show up to work, even if they were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, and he directed supervisors to make their direct reports come to work, even if those direct reports were showing symptoms of COVID-19," the lawsuit states. "On one occasion, Mr. Casey intercepted a sick supervisor en-route to get tested and ordered the supervisor to get back to work, adding, 'We all have symptoms. You have a job to do.'"

Court documents say high-level Tyson executives were lobbying White House officials for protection from efforts to contain COVID-19.

The suit goes on to claim the executives "successfully lobbied, or directed others to lobby Gov. (Kim) Reynolds to issue an executive order stating that only state government, not local governments, had the authority to close businesses in northeast Iowa, including Tyson's Waterloo facility."

The suit says several times that the defendants were pressuring employees to continue working and saying the facility had to remain open so "Americans don't go hungry."

Tyson sent KCCI the following statement:

"We're saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families. Our 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 guidance for preventing Covid-19.

"While we'll pass on specifically addressing the amended lawsuit, we can tell you the following:

  • Our company formed a coronavirus task force in January and began educating our team members – in multiple languages – about the virus. Our efforts included relaxing our attendance policy and telling team members to stay home if they didn't feel well.
  • We were one of the first companies to start taking team member temperatures and we began efforts to secure a supply of face masks before the CDC recommended using them.
  • We've transformed our facilities with protective measures including symptom screenings, face masks, workstation dividers and social distance monitors.
  • For weeks, the Black Hawk County Health Department (BHCHD) declined to share information with our company about Tyson team members with COVID-19. The first time BHCHD officials finally provided us with a list of names was the day after they and other local officials asked us to suspend plant operations. Once we started receiving the case information, we made the decision to idle production and work with state and local health officials to conduct facility-wide testing.
  • As noted in a May 5 news release, the reopening followed a tour of the plant by Black Hawk County Health officials, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, UFCW Local 431 President Bob Waters and other local business leaders and a subsequent joint company and community leader review of the company's protocol to safely resume operations."
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