Amid New Allegations, Tyson Foods Details Plans to Fight COVID-19

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Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale released details Thursday about its COVID-19 safety measures as new allegations swirled regarding behavior from its leadership at the company’s pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa.

The Des Moines Register reported Monday that an amended federal lawsuit filed by the families of three Tyson Foods employees who died from COVID-19 alleged that plant manager Tom Hart and human resources director James Hook lied to interpreters about the severity of the virus in April. The Tyson Foods’ Waterloo plant employs about 2,800, including many non-English speaking immigrants. 

The suit alleged that the leaders told the interpreters that the plant had been cleared to operate when in fact the local health department was urging it to close. This followed allegations that Hart had organized a betting pool on how many plant workers would become infected. Tyson Foods suspended Hart and other leaders and announced an investigation that would be lead by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Tyson Foods shut down production at the Waterloo plant in April after a wave of infections, and Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson said the “food supply chain is breaking” in a full-page advertisement that ran in several national newspapers. 

Through company spokesman Derek Burleson, Tyson Foods declined to comment on the new amended lawsuit. Burleson said Tyson Foods has spent $20 million on worker bonuses and facility safety upgrades at the Waterloo plant.

“Since this involves active litigation and because there’s an ongoing related investigation, we’ll pass on making specific comments on the amended complaint,” the statement read in part. “We can tell you we’ve worked hard to provide coronavirus training and education in multiple languages to our team members to help ensure they’re safe at work and at home. In fact, we have about 20 translators at the Waterloo plant covering more than half a dozen languages. We’ve distributed 300,000 cloth masks to our team members that they or family members can use outside our plants.”

Tyson Foods also posted a news release to its website detailing efforts to combat the continuing spread of the coronavirus. In November, when the company announced its quarterly and fiscal 2020 earnings, CEO Dean Banks said Tyson Foods had spent about $540 million related to the pandemic.

The news release said the $540 million was to “transform” its facilities with such safety measures as walk-through temperature scanners, workstation dividers and the institution of random testing of employees.

At the time, Tyson Foods said it had tested about half of its workforce for the virus. It had 139,000 employees as of Oct. 3, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission.

“We’ve learned a great deal during the pandemic and are implementing measures such as a new Covid-19 testing strategy, which are enabling us to move from defense to offense in our efforts to actively search for and fight the virus,” Tyson Foods Chief HR Officer Johanna Söderström said. 

The company has said it will hire a chief medical officer and has partnered with Matrix Medical Network to devise strategies. It hired an additional 200 nurses and plans to open pilot health care clinics in communities in which it has a production facility.

“Given the widely-reported rise of Covid-19 cases across the U.S. and other parts of the world, we know we must remain diligent in our efforts to protect our team members,” said Tom Brower, senior vice president of health and safety for Tyson Foods. “In addition to strategic testing, we’re committed to continuing to work with outside health experts to find new, even more effective ways to tackle the virus.”