Tyson Foods Battles Pandemic, Lawsuits

Tyson Foods Inc. hopes technological advances will help it fight COVID, including computerized screening systems that determine employees’ temperatures before they report to their work stations.
Tyson Foods Inc. hopes technological advances will help it fight COVID, including computerized screening systems that determine employees’ temperatures before they report to their work stations. (Tyson)
Plant employees at Tyson Foods work at stations separated by barriers.
Plant employees at Tyson Foods work at stations separated by barriers. (Tyson)

Tyson Foods’ partnership with the League of United Latin American Citizens didn’t save the Springdale company from a scolding.

Tyson Foods is battling multiple civil lawsuits in Iowa filed by family members of employees who died of COVID-19 causes. The lawsuits come as the company touts its multimillion-dollar efforts to improve safety protocols in their processing plants, facilities that have been hit hard by waves of coronavirus infections.

One allegation made in a lawsuit filed in Black Hawk County was that then-plant manager Tom Hart organized a betting pool on how many employees would eventually test positive at Tyson Foods’ pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Of the plant’s 2,800 employees, approximately 1,000 tested positive and at least five died.

Another allegation was that the plant leadership lied about the severity of the virus to interpreters. Many of the employees at processing facilities are immigrants who don’t speak English.

“We were beyond concerned; we were appalled,” said LULAC CEO Sindy Benavides. “The fact you had managers, leaders, placing bets on the lives of workers was beyond the pale. We absolutely connected with Tyson immediately to demand they take action. I know they were on the same page.”

LULAC, the nation’s largest civil rights organization for Hispanics, has a partnership with Tyson Foods that includes the company being a member of its Corporate Alliance advisory board. In April, when the pandemic was first beginning to rage through processing facilities, Domingo Garcia, the national president of LULAC, wrote a letter to Tyson Foods demanding safety measures to protect workers after LULAC received complaints from Hispanic workers.

In July, Garcia and other health and government officials took a tour of Tyson Foods’ plant on Berry Street in Springdale to see the safety improvements.

$540 Million Price

In November, Tyson Foods CEO Dean Banks said the company had spent $540 million in fiscal year 2020 to improve safety protocols and equipment related to the pandemic.

Tyson Foods has a page on its company website devoted to the coronavirus and detailing its efforts to protect its employees’ health, which it called its No. 1 priority. Major elements of the company’s efforts are random weekly testing, infrared temperature scanners and the hiring of Chief Medical Officer Claudia Coplein, who began Jan. 4.

Tyson Foods also installed plexiglass dividers between employees, who in processing plants work in close quarters in a disassembly-line style. Protective face shields are supplied, work shifts have been staggered to help with social distancing, and all employees undergo health screening before entering facilities.

Company spokesman Derek Burleson said Tyson Foods’ efforts meet or exceed safety standards recommended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

“We’ve transformed the way we operate,” Burleson said in an email. “We’ve put in place a host of protective steps that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COVID-19.

“We continue to implement measures to protect our team members and ensure they feel safe and secure when they come to work.”

Benavides said LULAC is pleased with the steps Tyson Foods has taken. She specifically mentioned the hiring of Coplein in light of the rollout of coronavirus vaccines this past month.

Benavides said the vaccination program has been inefficient nationally since there has been little federal coordination. Coplein’s presence should help with companywide coordination; Tyson Foods has nearly 120,000 U.S. employees.

The company’s random testing program is administered by Matrix Medical Network and should be effective in finding asymptomatic virus carriers, Benavides said. Tyson Foods is testing thousands of workers each week, Burleson said.

“[W]e estimate more than half of our workforce has been tested for Covid-19,” Burleson said. “We’re currently testing thousands of workers per week as part of our industry-leading monitoring strategy. In addition to testing those with symptoms or who have been in close contact with someone who has the virus, we’re also proactively testing workers who have no symptoms.”

Saving Face

There’s little doubt the allegations that surfaced in the Iowa lawsuits have been a public relations hit for Tyson Foods since no company wants a reputation of not caring about its workers.

Tyson Foods responded quickly to the betting allegations, hiring former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to do an investigation. After Holder’s findings, which the company has not released publicly, Tyson Foods fired seven managers at the Waterloo plant, including Tom Hart.

One of the fired managers, Don Merschbrock, told the Associated Press that the betting pool was meant as a morale booster and wasn’t “malicious.”

Benavides said LULAC was confident that the actions by the Waterloo officials were an isolated incident and not reflective of Tyson Foods’ beliefs. She pointed out that LULAC has not seen any of Holder’s findings.

“It was important they fired the people who were involved and Dean Banks actually went to the plant,” Benavides said. “That sends a strong signal companywide and nationwide that these are things that you absolutely do not play with the lives of your workers.”

Even if the betting pool allegations have been handled, the lawsuits still remain and accuse Tyson Foods of negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation. Tyson Foods has denied the claims and has tried to move the lawsuits to federal court, claiming that they operated the facilities under federal guidelines in a declared national emergency.

Tyson Foods closed the Waterloo plant from April 22 to May 7. It closed the plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, from April 6 to April 21; the family of a worker at that plant who died filed suit.

Benavides said LULAC first got involved with meat processors during the pandemic after hearing from many Hispanic and Latino workers, who didn’t know what was going on and felt unsafe. LULAC doesn’t represent workers but is a civil rights advocacy group.

“We will not relent in calling for safer, clearer requirements in the meatpacking industry,” Benavides said.

Benavides said she believes Tyson Foods still has some work to do on communicating better with its non-English speaking workers but that Banks and the executive leadership at Tyson Foods seem to understand the importance of worker safety.

“If we hear from our local leaders and from LULAC members, we would be the first ones to call Tyson Foods to the carpet,” Benavides said. “You don’t play with people’s lives.”