Tyson-Iowa-Plant-Lawsuit In this May 1, 2020, file photo, vehicles sit in a near empty parking lot outside the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. A group of worker advocacy organizations has filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging that meat processing companies Tyson and JBS have engaged in workplace racial discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic. The complaint alleges the companies adopted polices that reject U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on distancing and protective gear on meat processing lines. The complaint says the operating procedures have a discriminatory impact on mostly Black, Latino, and Asian workers.
Image via AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, file

“Betting on how many people are going to get sick, that’s appalling,” LULAC National President Domingo García told The Americano. 

UPDATE: In response to the allegations, Tyson Foods, Inc. issued the following statement from Tyson Foods President & CEO Dean Banks involving the company’s pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa:” We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant. Tyson Foods is a family company with 139,000 team members and these allegations do not represent who we are, or our CORE VALUES and Team Behaviors. We expect every team member at Tyson Foods to operate with the utmost integrity and care in everything we do. We have suspended, without pay, the individuals allegedly involved and have retained the law firm Covington & Burling LLP to conduct an independent investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder. If these claims are confirmed, we’ll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company.”

During the onset of the pandemic, Tyson Foods’ in Iowa had little regard for their meatpacking employees. According to a lawsuit filed by the family of the late Isidro Fernández of Waterloo, Iowa, who died on April 26 from complications of COVID-19, Tyson employers took bets on how many employees would get sick from COVID. 

RELATED: Trump to Sign Executive Order Protecting Meat Processing Plants from Liability in COVID-19 Transmission

The lawsuit also states that Tyson managers forced employees to work long hours in cramped conditions, without personal protective equipment (PPE), and were told to ignore symptoms. One of the managers called COVID-19 the “glorified flu.” As more people got sick, Tyson managers began to avoid the plant floor because they feared contagion. The employees had no other choice but to work because they don’t get paid sick leave. The lawsuit states that employees were given incentives to work in the form of $500 “thank you bonuses” for employees who turned up for every scheduled shift for three months. 

At least 4,000 employees throughout Iowa have contracted COVID-19, according to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Ten employees have died, but there could be more. 

“When I got this news last night, I just wanted to cry,” Joe Henry, political director in Iowa of LULAC, said in an interview with The Americano, regarding the claims in the lawsuit. “We knew it was bad, but to have people in management positions look at our people as just pieces on a game board to play with, that is so inhumane.”

LULAC officials have had years-long relationships with food distribution plants nationwide and have made several complaints about their working conditions and employee relations. Henry has been working with plants in Iowa for the past five years to secure better working conditions.

Iowa has 20 meatpacking plants and 40,000 employees. According to LULAC, most workers, between 60% and 70%, are Latino. The remainder of the worker population is Black and Asian. Other food plants aside from Tyson Foods include Smithfield Foods and JBS. 

RELATED: Workers of Color Make Up 87% of Coronavirus Infections in Meat Plants

The lawsuit by the Fernández family against Tyson Foods isn’t the only one. Three other families of deceased employees are suing the company as well. The dead include employees Sedika Buljic, 58, who died on April 18; Reberiano García, 60, who died on April 23; and José Ayala, Jr., 44, who died on May 25.

According to the Associated Press, Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law in June that would protect businesses and healthcare providers from legal claims from people exposed to the virus, retroactive to Jan. 1. But the law has exceptions for injuries that result in hospitalization and death, and appears unlikely to block the case from moving forward.

“These facilities have not been safe for a long time,” Henry said. “The pandemic has brought that to light.” 

Henry said the disregard for employees at these plants doesn’t fall on Tyson Foods alone, but on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), specifically in Iowa. According to Henry, OSHA has received more than 140 complaints about food plants and has only investigated a handful. 

“Betting on how many people are going to get sick, that’s appalling,” LULAC National President Domingo García told The Americano. “Those people need to be held accountable. OSHA under President Donald Trump has been AWOL. They have not been enforcing employee labor laws.”  

COVID-19 in Iowa 

COVID cases in the state of Iowa continue to surge. The state Department of Public Health reported 40 deaths and 3,896 confirmed new cases in the past 24 hours as of Nov. 19. According to the Associated Press, that brings the total number of fatalities to 2,064 and the total cases in the state to 194,479. 

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also continued to increase, with a record 1,527 people being treated. There were 283 people in intensive care units. 

Gov. Reynolds has finally reconsidered implementing a mask mandate in the state, a policy she refused to agree to since the beginning of the pandemic. 

The State Data Center in Iowa reports an estimated 198,550 Latinos living in Iowa. Latinos constitute 6.3% of the state’s total population. The report shows that 56.9%, over half of the total 2019 Latino population, live in eight counties: Polk, Woodbury, Scott, Marshall, Johnson, Muscatine, Linn, and Pottawattamie. 

Recent COVID-19 figures show the most cases are in Polk County (29,223 cases), followed by Linn County (12,407 cases), and Black Hawk County (9,616 cases). 

This story has been updated to include Tyson Foods, Inc.’s statement from Tyson Foods President & CEO Dean Banks involving the company’s pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa.