By Katarina Sostaric, Iowa Public Radio News
Allegations surfaced in a lawsuit this week that Tyson pork plant managers in Waterloo were betting on how many workers would get sick from COVID-19. Now, a local lawmaker is renewing his call for the governor to provide more information about her response to the meatpacking plant outbreak that infected more than 1,000 workers last spring, many of whom are immigrants and refugees.
Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, refused to shut down the plant in April after local officials asked her to pause production as the coronavirus outbreak was already underway.
At the time, Reynolds said Tyson officials assured her they were taking health precautions. Local officials who toured the plant in early April said the plant was not adequately protecting employees.
“Now we know the same individuals that [Reynolds] took their word for are the same individuals that were potentially betting on the lives of their employees,” said Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo. “And I’m sure everything was fine to them, because they weren’t the ones that were dying from COVID.”
The families of some of the Tyson workers who died of COVID-19 have filed lawsuits against the company.
The Iowa Capital Dispatch first reported Wednesday that a court filing from the family of Isidro Fernandez alleges plant manager Tom Hart started a betting pool for supervisors to bet on how many workers would contract the virus.
The lawsuit also alleges Tyson leaders successfully lobbied Reynolds to protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits and to not allow local governments to close businesses.
Smith said he was disgusted by the allegations but not surprised.
“What we’ve seen is a lack of regard for the lives of people who have been actually putting their lives at stake to make sure that there’s food on the shelves for Americans, but also people across the globe,” Smith said.
Reynolds said Thursday she is proud that the state provided coronavirus testing for the Tyson workers.
“This is critical to our supply chain, and we know we have to do everything we can in our power to make sure that we’re protecting our workforce,” Reynolds said. “The way that I could help from a state perspective was to help get them the testing, which was very scarce at the time.”
But Reynolds declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit.
Smith and Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo, submitted a public records request to Reynolds’ office in April. They asked for documents and communications that mentioned Tyson from some of the governor’s top staffers.
As of Friday, Smith had not received a response.
“I would love to know what the communication was between our governor and Tyson and her office, to know what she knows, what she knew and when she knew it, and what decisions she made after being informed about what was taking place there,” Smith said.
Iowa Public Radio requested records from the governor’s office related to the COVID-19 outbreak at a Tyson plant in Storm Lake, and has not received the requested records.
“Our office plans to fulfill all open records requests,” said governor’s office spokesperson Pat Garrett. “Responses have been delayed during this unprecedented time.”
On Thursday, Tyson Foods CEO Dean Banks announced the Waterloo managers mentioned in the lawsuit were suspended without pay, and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would lead an investigation of the lawsuit’s claims.
“If these claims are confirmed, we’ll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company,” Banks said in a statement.
Banks said Tyson “invested hundreds of millions of dollars” to add protective measures to their meatpacking plants. Many of these steps were taken after the virus was already spreading in the Waterloo facility and other processing plants in the state.
Rep. Smith said he has heard Tyson workers are still getting infected at the Waterloo plant as Iowa continues to have one of the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases in the country.