Tyson Foods Suspends Employees After Lawsuit Alleges Managers Bet On Workers Catching Covid-19

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Written by Dana Sanchez
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Vice President Mike Pence and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visit the Tyson Foods facility in Goodlettsville, TN to advocate for passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Oct. 18, 2019. Photo: Flickr/White House photo by D. Myles Cullen, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. exporter of beef, is trying to polish its tarnished public image after failing to protect its mostly Black and Latino workforce from the coronavirus.

At least 4,585 Tyson workers in 15 states were diagnosed with covid-19, and 18 died as of May 2020, Business Insider reported on May 11. More than six months later, updated numbers for Tyson cases and deaths are either not available or not public.

Tyson, which has 139,000 employees, says it has hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an investigation in response to a wrongful death lawsuit that alleges managers at a pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, took bets on how many employees would catch covid-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the meatpacking industry since the spring, forcing companies including Tyson, Smithfield Foods and JBS to shut slaughterhouses hit by outbreaks.

The family of Tyson Foods employee Isidro Fernandez filed a wrongful death lawsuit earlier this year, alleging Fernandez got sick while working at the plant. He died of covid-19 on April 26, the NBC local affiliate reported in Waterloo. The suit was amended last week, alleging that management was aware of the risks of covid-19 and betted on how many workers would get sick from the virus. Fernandez is one of at least five plant employees to die of the virus.

A plant manager “organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers,” according to the suit. More than a third of the workforce contracted covid at the facility.

In April, President Donald Trump ordered meat plants to stay open. Emails later showed that the order was drafted in part by lobbyists from the North American Meat Institute, a trade group supported by major meat industry companies including Tyson, Smithfield Foods, and JBS, The Intercept reported.

Tyson said in July that it was “creating barriers and/or requiring face shields on production lines where social distancing is not possible” in response to the pandemic. The company admits that it still has not implemented the CDC-recommended six-feet distancing recommendations.

In July, a coalition of activist groups filed a racial discrimination complaint against Tyson for failing to use safety guidelines resulting in the spread of the coronavirus among meat-processing workers. The complaint alleged that Tyson quickly protected workers in its largely white corporate office, but did little to stop the spread among its Black, Latino and immigrant workers. 

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Navina Khanna is executive director of the HEAL Food Alliance, a plaintiff in the racial discrimination complaint. Khanna expressed disappointment that Tyson has worked so hard to refurbish its public image rather than change its business model.

“Instead of investing in their public image and in groups to improve their public image, they need to be investing in creating a safe place for their employees, actually paying their workers decent wages, and paying them for sick days so they don’t have to show up for work if they have any symptoms,” Khanna said.

Twitter users reacted strongly to the reports of how Tyson treated its workers during the coronavirus.

“No @TysonFoods products in my fridge! Disgraceful practice…..” TJ Terry tweeted.

“The Tyson Family should be ashamed that they created a culture that produced such a sadistic manager. Sick employees who were forced to work should be compensated,” another user tweeted.

“These are the type of criminals that Mitch wanted so badly to protect from litigation,” Nitzan said in a post.

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