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Tyson Foods sued for abusing workers — and GOP is fighting to let them get away with it

The company allegedly forced workers to come in during pandemic, while supervisors gambled about who would get sick.

By Josh Israel - November 19, 2020
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tyson meat, food plant, covid-19

A new filing in a wrongful death lawsuit against Tyson Food alleges that employees were forced to work in the pandemic while their supervisors placed bets who how many would get COVID-19.

If Senate Republicans get their way, companies would be virtually immune from such liability suits.

According to the Iowa Capital Dispatch, the surviving family of Isidro Fernandez — who died in April after exposure to the coronavirus at Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing facility — alleges a “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety” on the part of his former employer. At least 1,000 other Waterloo workers also were infected with the virus.

The suit claims the company insisted employees work without social distancing or personal protective equipment — even if they showed symptoms. It also alleges that the plant’s manager created a betting pool for managers and supervisors to gamble on how many workers would test positive for the virus.

A spokesperson for the company said in an email that it was “saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member” and has “implemented a host of protective measures at Waterloo and our other facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing Covid-19.” He added that they would “pass on specifically addressing” the allegations in the lawsuit.

In a followup statement, Tyson Foods president and CEO Dean Banks said he was “extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant” and that the company was working to get to the bottom of the matter.

“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,” he added. “…We have suspended, without pay, the individuals allegedly involved and have retained the law firm Covington & Burling LLP to conduct an independent investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.”

Banks said that if the claims in the suit were confirmed, Tyson Foods would “take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company.”

The case is currently pending before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Eastern Division.

But Senate Republicans have proposed to give Tyson Foods and other companies a massive liability shield, making it much harder for workers to sue them if they get sick from the coronavirus.

Months ago, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed the so-called Safeguarding America’s Frontline Employees To Offer Work Opportunities Required to Kickstart the Economy Act. The bill would require workers who contract the coronavirus to prove that it was due to their employer’s “reckless disregard” for safety measures before they can hold them accountable in court.

The lawmakers claimed this was intended to “lessen the burdens on interstate commerce by discouraging insubstantial lawsuits relating to COVID–19.”

In April, McConnell (R-KY) made it clear that he would block any pandemic relief legislation unless it included that liability shield for businesses.

“Let me make it perfectly clear that the Senate is not interested in passing a bill that does not have liability protection. So, that’s an integral part of our economy getting back to normal,” he told Fox News. “What I’m saying is, we have a red line on liability. It won’t pass the Senate without it.”

McConnell refused to take up a multi-trillion relief bill that passed the House without such a provision. He has instead repeatedly tried — unsuccessfully — to pass a $500 billion “skinny” proposal that does contain the liability shield. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer dismissed McConnell’s “emaciated” legislation as “completely inadequate.”

Donald Trump has also endorsed taking away workers’ right to sue, telling reporters in April, “We have tried to take liability away from these companies. We just don’t want that because we want the companies to open and to open strong.”

Labor law experts have warned that such a corporate immunity bill would make the already difficult task of proving liability in court nearly impossible.

“Gross negligence is already as a general manner an extremely difficult thing to prove,” Hugh Baran, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project told The American Independent Foundation in July. “You virtually have to prove intent — that you wanted your workers to get hurt or sick. This [proposed legislation] actually raises the bar so high that no worker or consumer will ever be able to” meet the standard.”

Baran also noted that, under the GOP bill, “employers are immune from liability if they can show reasonable efforts to comply with any applicable government standards or guidance. But the problem is that the federal guidance, the OSHA guidance or CDC guidance, doesn’t require them to do anything.”

Spokespeople for Cornyn and McConnell did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

With close quarters and few safety protections in place, meat plants became early hotspots for the coronavirus as the pandemic hit the nation earlier this year. Thousands were sickened as a result.

In April, Trump ordered workers to continue working anyway, deeming meat processing “critical infrastructure.”

This article has been updated to include additional statements from Tyson Foods.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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