Tyson suspends managers accused of betting on number of employees who would contract COVID-19

WATERLOO, Iowa — Tyson Foods on Thursday suspended managers at an Iowa facility accused in a wrongful death lawsuit of betting on the number of employees in their charge who would contract the novel coronavirus.

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The suit, filed earlier this year by the family of the late Isidro Fernandez, alleged “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety” because their loved one was knowingly exposed to the virus while working at the Tyson Pork Processing Plant in Waterloo. It was amended recently to levy specific charges of wrongdoing against particular managers, including an accusation against plant manager Tom Hart for organizing a “cash buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19,” KWWL reported.

“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,” Tyson Foods President and CEO Dean Banks said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon and obtained by KGAN.

Banks also stated that an independent investigation into the allegations will be led by former U.S. 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,” Banks added.

In addition to the allegations against Hart, KWWL reported that the suit also claims:

• John Casey, an upper-level manager at the plant, explicitly directed supervisors to ignore COVID-19 symptoms, referring to as the “glorified flu” and told workers not to worry about it because “it’s not a big deal” and “everyone is going to get it.”

• On at least one occasion, Casey intercepted a sick supervisor en route to be tested and ordered him back to work saying, “We all have symptoms. You have a job to do.

• Tyson offered $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees with perfect attendance for three months, incentivizing sick employees to continue working.

According to KGAN, the suit claims the betting pool materialized around April 10, following a plant visit by Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson and other health officials, who lobbied for its closure due to the unsafe working conditions witnessed.

Within a week of the health officials’ visit to the plant, more than 620 people in the county had tested positive for the coronavirus and seven had died. Black Hawk County Health Department director Dr. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye told USA Today that 90% of the deaths at that time were linked to the Tyson plant.

The suit also alleges that nearly two dozen employees at the Waterloo plant were treated in the emergency room two days later, but Tyson did not close the facility due to an outbreak until April 22, KGAN reported.

According to USA Today, roughly 1,000 employees at the Waterloo facility contracted COVID-19, and Fernandez, on whose behalf the suit was filed, was among five fatalities linked to the outbreak.

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