Iowa Tyson pork plant bosses bet on how many workers coronavirus would kill
A lawsuit alleges that managers at Tyson's Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant were placing bets on how many workers would contract coronavirus and die. | Charlie Neibergall / AP

WATERLOO, Iowa—This story is unbelievable but apparently true, and it’s so sick that it’s no joke: Bosses at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, not only didn’t protect their workers against the coronavirus, but set up a betting pool on how many workers would get sick and how many would die.

The answers, so far, according to the Nov. 11 update of prior papers filed in federal district court: 1,000 sick, six dead, one big fat wrongful death lawsuit, and one very pissed-off union for U.S. pork plant workers—including Waterloo’s—the United Food and Commercial Workers. No word on which plant boss won the betting pool.

The disclosure forced Tyson’s CEO to suspend the plant manager and other local supervisors on Nov. 19 and hire a high-powered D.C. law firm, Covington and Burling, to conduct an independent investigation, the Associated Press reported.

Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder will head that probe. During his Justice Department tenure, Holder fined Wall Street firms millions of dollars for their finagling and fraud which led to the 2008 Great Recession, but no financiers went to jail.

The lawsuit shows one of the most-callous cases of corporate and capitalist contempt for workers’ health and safety during the pandemic. Currently, over 250,000 people have died in the U.S. and nearly 12 million have become infected since the government officially declared the pandemic on March 13.

After the Waterloo coronavirus outbreak, bosses closed the plant earlier this year for fewer than two weeks for decontamination, deep cleaning, and sanitizing from the lethal virus. But before that, local Tyson bosses forced workers to toil in those dangerous conditions, including ordering one worker who vomited on the pork production line to stay on the job.

And they set up the betting pool, according to the latest court papers filed in a lawsuit started earlier by Oscar Fernandez, son of the sixth worker to die, his father, Isidro.

Company CEO John Tyson saw his net wealth rise by $635 million since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Before workers died, supervisors paid each $500 bonuses if they came to work even while sick. They also ordered fellow supervisors to report for work even if they exhibited virus symptoms.

The workers were “crowded elbow to elbow, most without face coverings,” the court papers quoted Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson. In April, he advocated closing the plant. So did the county board of health. State officials rejected that.

All of that put more money in corporate pockets from the plant, where 2,800 workers process 20,000 hog carcasses daily. The suit says Tyson didn’t spend the money for personal protective equipment (PPE) for its workers. Meanwhile, a report released Nov. 19 by the Institute for Policy Studies about U.S. billionaires profiting from the pandemic reveals company CEO John Tyson saw his net wealth rise by $635 million since the plague began.

Of the ill nationwide, at least 19,800 are pork production plant workers, says UFCW. It points out, of course, that GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump early on declared them “essential” and ordered plant owners to put them back to work, virus or no virus. UFCW knows of some 128 who have died. Both infections and deaths have skyrocketed in Iowa, according to a main source of coronavirus data, Johns Hopkins University’s virus-tracking dashboard.

“America’s meatpacking workers are dying on the frontlines of this pandemic, putting themselves in harm’s way to ensure our families can put food on the table this Thanksgiving,” says UFCW President Marc Perrone, whose Local 431 represents the Waterloo workers.

“This shocking report of supervisors allegedly taking bets on how many workers would get infected, pressuring sick workers to stay on the job, and failing to enforce basic safety standards, should outrage every American,” he added.

The Waterloo plant is the largest pork processing plant in the U.S. and the main employer in Waterloo. News reports indicate the coronavirus outbreak at the plant spread around town.

“These stunning safety failures make clear the Trump administration and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds,” a Republican, “care more about industry profits than protecting America’s frontline workers,” Perrone continued.

Black Hawk County, whose county seat is Waterloo, has had 9,615 people test positive for COVID-19 so far and 124 die. Black Hawk’s case rate is 7,262 positive cases per 100,000 people. Iowa’s statewide rate, 6,196 per 100,000 people, trails only those of both Dakotas.

By contrast, the infection rate for Los Angeles County, the nation’s most-populous, is 3,447 positive coronavirus cases per 100,000 people. It’s 5,066 per 100,000 in the #2 county, Cook in Illinois, which Chicago dominates.

While offering the bonuses, Tyson didn’t provide respirators or ventilators. Tyson execs lobbied Reynolds, Trump, and Trump VP Mike Pence for the “essential worker” declaration the Oval Office occupant later issued.

“Protecting our country’s meatpacking workers is essential to keeping our food supply secure. We are continuing to call on elected leaders to implement an enforceable national safety standard, increased access to PPE and COVID-19 testing, and rigorous proactive inspections,” Perrone said.

“Without immediate action, deadly outbreaks like this will quickly spread across the Midwest and cause COVID-19 cases to spike even higher. Our meatpacking workers, and the millions they serve, deserve and expect better from those sworn to protect us.”

The court papers show the Tyson managers certainly didn’t protect their workers.

Before the April 22 shutdown, plant managers ordered workers who tested positive to come in anyway. One unnamed manager dismissed the virus as “the glorified flu.” Though the suit does not say so, that echoes Trump’s public lies about it.

The latest affidavit in the suit not only contains Thompson’s statement but a calculation by county Health Director Dr.  Nafissa Egbuyone that 90% of Black Hawk County’s COVID-19 illnesses and deaths can be traced backwards to the outbreak at the plant.

“At the time of filing this lawsuit, more than 8,500 Tyson employees have contracted COVID-19, more than double the number for any other company, and at least 20 have died nationwide,” the latest court papers add. “A grossly disproportionate number of Tyson workers have been infected with COVID-19 compared to the general population of the United States.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.