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Tyson managers lied to interpreters about COVID-19 risks at Iowa meat plant, lawsuit claims

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Supervisors at Tyson Foods allegedly lied to language interpreters about coronavirus risks at its pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where a deadly outbreak infected more than 1,000 workers, according to a federal lawsuit against the company.

The complaint claims that managers at Tyson, the largest U.S. meat producer, discouraged interpreters from talking about COVID-19, other than to falsely state that the virus was not affecting the facility. The plant has 2,800 employees, including many "refugees or immigrants who speak and comprehend little or no English," according to the amended suit filed on November 24 in U.S. District Court.

The litigation, filed on behalf of families of three Tyson employees who died of COVID-19, said that a plant manager and human resources director told interpreters in April that the facility had "no confirmed cases" of coronavirus and that it had been cleared to continue operating by county health officials. 

In fact, workers at the Waterloo factory had tested positive for the virus, and local health officials were calling on Tyson to close the facility, the suit contends.

The complaint also alleges that Tyson removed "many" interpreters from the plant floor after their discussions in April. Managers also instructed U.S. Department of Agriculture food inspectors in April not to wear masks inside the plant because it would "send the wrong message," according to the suit.

Tyson defends its record

A Tyson spokesperson declined to comment on the litigation and a related company probe. 

"We can tell you we've worked hard to provide coronavirus training and education in multiple languages to our team members to help ensure they're safe at work and at home," the spokesperson said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "We have about 20 translators at the Waterloo plant covering more than half a dozen languages. We've distributed 300,000 cloth masks to our team members that they or family members can use outside our plants."

Tyson also said it has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars, including about $20 million at the Waterloo plant, for bonuses to frontline workers and to deploy measures to protect employees from COVID-19. At least five workers at the plant died of COVID-19, according to the lawsuit and to the Des Moines Register, which cited worker advocates.

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Tyson in November said it had suspended managers accused of wagering on how many workers would be infected with COVID-19. The facility was temporarily shuttered after an outcry from local officials and some lawmakers.

"We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant," Tyson CEO Dean Banks said in a statement two weeks ago. 

Those allegedly involved have been suspended without pay, and Tyson has retained former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lead an investigation into the claims. If confirmed, Tyson will "take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company," Banks stated.

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