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Tyson fires 7 bosses over covid bets

by Nathan Owens | December 17, 2020 at 2:56 a.m.
FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2006, file photo, a car passes in front of a Tyson Foods Inc., sign at Tyson headquarters in Springdale.

Tyson Foods Inc. has fired seven managers at its largest pork processing plant after allegations that the supervisors took bets on how many workers would catch the coronavirus.

A wrongful death lawsuit detailed the claims, prompting the meat company to suspend the supervisors named in the complaint last month and to open an investigation led by a former U.S. attorney general.

After the investigation, Tyson Foods on Wednesday said it has “terminated seven plant management employees,” whose names and official titles were not disclosed in a news release.

“The behaviors exhibited by these individuals do not represent the Tyson core values, which is why we took immediate and appropriate action to get to the truth,” President and Chief Executive Dean Banks said in a written statement.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

In addition to the firings, Banks and others traveled to the Waterloo, Iowa, plant to meet with workers.

“We were very upset to learn of the behaviors found in the allegations, as we expect our leaders to treat all team members with the highest levels of respect and integrity,” Banks said.

Tyson plans to continue working with former Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm Covington & Burlington LLP to build a more trusting and respectful workplace.

The lawsuit, filed by the families of four workers who died after testing positive for the virus, alleges that a Waterloo plant manager “organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool” for supervisors in the spring to wager on how many employees would test positive for covid-19. Iowa federal court documents show that more than 1,000 of the plant’s 2,800 workers would eventually catch the virus, killing at least six and sending many to the hospital.

The names and positions of the fired plant managers were not disclosed “for privacy reasons,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said in an email Wednesday.

He said that Holder and his firm “investigated this matter thoroughly and our decisions were based on the results.”

The lawsuit named plant manager Tom Hart as one of the wager organizers. It also accused Hart and other leaders of downplaying the dangers of the virus, calling it a “glorified flu,” and lying to interpreters in order to mislead the plant’s non-English-speaking workforce.

Despite the allegations, Tyson has repeatedly said that the health of its workers is its top priority. The company spent $540 million on safeguards, testing and bonus pay and benefits for employees this year. It also hired a chief medical officer last week to oversee Tyson’s health efforts, including plans to build health clinics at a number of processing plants.

Critics have been quick to point out concerns about the meatpacker.

On Tuesday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer urged the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate the nation’s largest meat company for its “slow and minimal pandemic response” that resulted in thousands of worker infections and several deaths.

The family of a 65-year-old man who worked at the company’s Storm Lake, Iowa, plant, filed a lawsuit this week after he died from the virus. The suit contended that Tyson did not implement proper safety measures to protect its workers.

According to the company’s website, Tyson has taken steps that meet or exceed federal health and labor guidance for preventing covid-19, such as infrared scanners, air filtration systems and daily cleaning.

“Tyson is flagrantly misrepresenting its poor pandemic response,” Stringer said in a statement on the comptroller’s website. “There is human cost to Tyson’s failures — preventable deaths, hospitalizations and sick workers. These failures have material impacts on its business operations that carry serious risks for shareholders.”

Stringer, a public pension investment adviser, asked for more accurate labor, health and safety reporting from Tyson during the pandemic, especially as infection rates are expected to rise in the winter months.

“Investors require more than bland assurances” from the company, so they can have confidence that “the problems reported earlier this year are a thing of the past,” he said in a letter to the SEC.

Tyson spokesman Derek Burleson declined to comment on the comptroller’s letter and statements Wednesday, saying in an email that “we’ve not yet reviewed [those] materials.”

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