By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Tyson Foods Inc. said on Thursday it suspended employees without pay and hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an investigation in response to a wrongful death lawsuit that alleges managers at an Iowa pork plant took bets on how many employees would catch COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the meatpacking industry, infecting thousands of workers since the spring and forcing companies like Tyson, Smithfield Foods and JBS to shut slaughterhouses hit by outbreaks.
The son of a worker at a Tyson facility in Waterloo, Iowa, who died in April of complications from the virus, filed a lawsuit that claims plant managers misled workers about COVID-19 and allowed sick employees to continue working.
The worker, Isidro Fernandez, got sick because of his job, according to the lawsuit that was amended on Nov. 11.
The Waterloo facility is Tyson’s largest U.S. pork plant, processing 19,500 hogs a day, or about 5% of total U.S. pork production.
COVID-19 infected more than 1,000 employees out of about 2,800 at the plant, and five died, the lawsuit says. Tyson idled the plant in late April because of an outbreak.
Earlier that month, manager Tom Hart “organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all meatpacking industry for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19,” according to the lawsuit.
Hart could not immediately be reached for comment.
Tyson said it suspended employees involved in the accusations and retained the law firm Covington & Burling to conduct an independent investigation led by Holder.
“If these claims are confirmed, we’ll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company,” the company said.
The Iowa Capital Dispatch first reported on the betting allegations in the lawsuit on Wednesday.
“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,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Bill Berkrot)