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Tyson Foods Managers Allegedly Bet On How Many Employees Would Get COVID-19, Lawsuit Says

The family of a former Tyson Foods employee who died of COVID-19 is suing the company for requiring employees to continue working despite a surging outbreak within the meatpacking plant.

Vehicles sit in a near empty parking lot outside the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa on May 1, 2020. | AP Images
Vehicles sit in a near empty parking lot outside the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa on May 1, 2020. | AP Images

A lawsuit filed by the son of a former Tyson Foods employee who died of COVID-19 alleges that mismanagement and disregard for worker safety may have led to his father's death. The suit also claims managers had bet on how many employees would contract COVID-19, and the Iowa Capitol Dispatch reported Thursday that the company suspended "individuals allegedly involved."

The son of Isidro Fernandez, Oscar Fernandez, recently filed the lawsuit against Tyson, its executives, and supervisors at the Waterloo, Iowa location where his father worked. The lawsuit joins at least three others filed by families of employees who died of COVID-19 after the company kept the plant open in April despite a surging number of cases. Fernandez died on April 26, days after the Waterloo plant shut down.  

According to the lawsuit, Tom Hart, a manager at the plant where Fernandez worked, organized a “cash buy-in, winner takes all” wager for supervisors to bet on how many employees would test positive for COVID-19. Managers also allegedly allowed sick employees to continue working and demanded workers show up even if they were exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. The suit claims one worker vomited on the production line and continued to work. 

Tyson Foods has said it will dispute most of the claims in court, and that it was “saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families,” the Capitol Dispatch reported. The company said Thursday that it is "extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant" and will "conduct an independent investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder."

The lawsuit claims that executives were aware that COVID-19 was spreading through its facilities between late March and early April and that management required employees to continue working in cramped conditions and without personal protective equipment. According to the lawsuit, more than 1,000 Waterloo plant workers tested positive for COVID-19, including at least 5 deaths. Nationwide, more than 8,500 Tyson employees have contracted the virus and at least 20 have died, according to the suit.  

After a neighboring Tyson facility experienced an outbreak and was forced to close at the beginning of April, Waterloo employees were allegedly instructed to transfer products from the shuttered facility, but did not quarantine or get tested before returning to work at Waterloo. The suit also claims that executives instructed lower-level supervisors at the Waterloo plant to deny that there were any positive COVID-19 cases in April.

State and local officials got involved in mid-April, imploring Tyson to take steps to ensure the safety of its employees, the suit alleges. Two days after Fernandez’s death, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that mandated slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities to reopen after the U.S. was facing a meat shortage after various facilities shuttered because of outbreaks. The suit alleges Tyson executives lobbied the White House for that order, which stripped the local government of the power to order the facility to close. 

Oscar Fernandez is seeking damages involved in his father’s death, including mental pain and suffering that his father experienced before he died. The lawsuit accuses Tyson and its supervisors of fraudulent misrepresentation for downplaying the coronavirus outbreak and gross negligence. Fernandez first filed the lawsuit in August in state court, but Tyson asked for it to be moved to federal court. 

In June, three other families of Tyson employees who died of COVID-19 sued the company for similar allegations of negligence and lying to its employees so they would keep working. 

According to an Associated Press report in June, a meatpacking union reported that more than 14,000 unionized workers contracted COVID-19 and at least 65 had died.

Correction: A previous version of this story said in one instance that Tyson Foods managers allegedly placed a bet on who would contract COVID-19. The story has been updated to reflect that managers allegedly placed a bet on how many employees would contract COVID-19.