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Tyson suspends managers at Iowa meat plant over COVID-19 betting claims

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Tyson Foods says it has suspended managers accused of wagering on how many workers would be infected with COVID-19 in an outbreak at its pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, earlier this year.

At least five of the plant's 2,800 employees died in the outbreak that infected more than 1,000 workers by early May, according to two wrongful death lawsuits filed against Tyson, the largest U.S. meat producer. The facility was temporarily shuttered after an outcry from local officials and some lawmakers.

Managers set up a betting pool as to how many workers would become ill even as they pressured workers with symptoms to continue showing up for work, the suits contend. 

"We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant," Dean Banks, Tyson's president and CEO, said Thursday in a statement. Those allegedly involved have been suspended without pay and Tyson has retained former 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.

Tyson said it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars enacting safety measures at its U.S. facilities, including the Waterloo plant. 

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The workplace picture painted in the suits prompted words of outrage from union leaders. 

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, called the allegations "shocking" and reiterated previous calls for a national safety standard to protect front-line workers from COVID-19. At least 128 meatpacking workers have died and more than 19,800 have been infected or exposed, the UFCW said on Thursday. 

As Tyson rebuffed calls from the local sheriff and health officials to close the plant in early April, its manager, Tom Hart, "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," according to suits filed on behalf of the families of four workers who died. 

Most managers at the plant were avoiding the facility's floor by late March or early April due to fears of getting infected, designating authority instead to lower-level supervisors without management training, the suits claim.

One high-level manager told supervisors to keep showing up even if they had symptoms and to direct workers who reported to them to follow suit. One worker threw up on the production line but was allowed to keep working, the suits allege.

Tyson denies many of the allegations in the lawsuits.

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