The family of a former meatpacker who died from COVID-19 alleges in a lawsuit that managers at a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa knew working conditions would result in illness, and even placed bets on how many workers would be infected. The family of Isidro Fernandez, who died in April, says the plant manager set up a winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager on coronavirus infections. Since the start of the pandemic, at least six workers have died and more than 1,000 tested positive for COVID-19 at the Iowa facility. Tyson Foods has suspended the managers involved in the alleged betting scheme, but worker rights advocates say it is further evidence of abuse and exploitation in the meat industry. “These companies are treating them like animals. They’re treating them as disposable,” says Magaly Licolli, executive director of Venceremos, an advocacy group for poultry plant workers.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez, as we turn right now to Iowa. It was a betting pool. That’s right. As COVID-19 raged through factories and meatpacking plants in the spring, the mega-corporation Tyson refused to close its largest pork slaughterhouse to protect its workers. While publicly claiming to be implementing all possible safety measures, the managers of the Waterloo plant in Iowa put money on how many workers would get the deadly virus. Soon after, at least six people at the plant had died, and more than 1,000 were infected.
These horrific allegations were made by the family of meatpacker Isidro Fernandez, who died of COVID-19 April 20th. In a lawsuit, the family claims that, quote, “plant manager Tom Hart organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19,” unquote.
Last week, Tyson suspended the managers without pay and hired a law firm to do an independent investigation into the claims, to be led by the former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. In a statement, Tyson Foods CEO Dean Banks said, quote, “We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant. … If these claims are confirmed, we’ll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company,” unquote.
But worker advocates say the betting pool is just further evidence of mistreatment by Tyson at the Iowa meat plant and its other factories. Tyson produces 20% of America’s beef, chicken and pork. The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents workers at the plant, said, quote, “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,” unquote.
This comes as a new study found up to 8% of all U.S. COVID-19 cases came from meatpacking plants. That’s more than 300,000 cases.
As COVID spikes across the United States, again endangering meat workers, we go to Springdale, Arkansas, home of Tyson Foods headquarters, to speak with Magaly Licolli. She is executive director of Venceremos, an advocacy group for poultry plant workers.
Magaly, it’s great to have you back again. Thank you for joining us, but very sad circumstances. Talk about what’s happened in Iowa — that’s at a pork slaughterhouse — and what that means for all meat workers around the country.
MAGALY LICOLLI: Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me. Definitely this is outrageous and unacceptable. However, this is shocking for the people that don’t know how workers are treated every day. When I informed the workers about this lawsuit here, they were not shocked at all. And this is because there exist this practices among workers. There is a lot of racism, discrimination. A lot of these workers are immigrants, refugees, Black, Asians, and often so vulnerable that really these companies are treating them like animals. They are treating them as disposable. And this example of the betting pool is just really an example or the sum up of how these workers are going through every day. And so, yes, definitely it’s shocking to know that on top of that the workers were getting sick, they were dying, these companies or these managers were treating these workers just as animals. And just, really, during the pandemic, we saw the highlighted issues within this industry that these workers were treated just as disposables and that these workers were purposely put at risk of getting sick.
And this is why even the managers tried to bet, because they knew that it was inevitable that these workers were getting sick, because the company didn’t provide even the essential benefits, such as PPE, or even allow workers to practice social distancing. And really what we saw during the pandemic and during these months, it was a lot about Tyson pretending that they care for workers. And why I said “pretending,” because they put a lot of money in PR campaign trying to convince the public that they were doing everything that they could to protect workers; however, still they didn’t provide paid sick leave.
Workers are used to coming to work while sick. And they said they gave $500 in bonuses with the condition that they didn’t have to miss any day to work. And their announcement was made in March, when they knew that the cases were growing in their plants and that they knew that workers were going to get sick, so they kind of incentivized workers to continue coming to work. And so, when workers told me back in March about these bonuses and really how the company was forcing them to come to work, when they don’t have any benefits, of paid sick leave, of anything like that, and so it was a lot of, like, understanding that this company knew what they were doing, that they knew that they were putting workers at risk of dying, really, because vulnerable — because these workers have also carried a lot of preexisting conditions of working in the processing plants with high amounts of chemicals. They have developed respiratory problems. So they know that if the workers were afraid of losing their lives, they have to give them money to make them come to work. And that’s what happened. And that’s how this all laid out on how they were forcing workers to come in sick.
And also, one thing to mention is, like, these companies, Tyson and other companies, use this punitive system that is like if workers missed a day of work because they were sick, they will get a point. If they reach up to 13 points, these workers are going to be fired. So they all the time are afraid of losing their jobs even for missing work because they were sick. So, yeah, we saw a lot of cases of workers coming in sick, workers being exposed, and also denying workers of the risk of who was in contact with. So, there was a lot of, like, times where workers didn’t know how many workers were sick, if the co-worker next to them was sick. That information was hidden to workers.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Magaly?
MAGALY LICOLLI: And also — mm-hmm?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Magaly, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the — we’re in the second, and in some places third, wave of the COVID pandemic. Have conditions changed at all in any of these plants since back in March, April or May? And what’s your response? Because many of these private employers are seeking to have Congress eliminate any liability on their part for not properly protecting their workers. They want immunity from any possible lawsuits as a result of their negligence in protecting their workers. Your response to that, as well?
MAGALY LICOLLI: Yeah, I mean, we saw that the government was really protecting these companies instead of workers. And so, right now workers are terrified for the second wave, because the majority of them got sick. And they also have long-term effects of COVID. Many of them are disabled, like I know workers who had like only 40% of the lung capacity after getting the COVID. And so they are not able to return to work. And Tyson was not paying workers to quarantine. They were not paying workers for being sick. Many workers had to be hospitalized for like three months. And after that, so many of them died. Workers were not compensated whatsoever for those times during being hospitalized. Many of them are facing food insecurity. Many of them are facing — they are going through hardship, not being able to pay medical bills, not being able to pay, like, the utilities, you know.
And so, right now the fear is, like, with the second wave, Tyson has not done anything to protect workers. And, in fact, after the outbreaks that we experienced here, the company relaxed its policies about checking the temperature, about asking questions in regards if they were exposed to others or if they traveled outside the state or the country. So they have relaxed a lot of the policies. And that’s why I said Tyson just was pretending to protect workers, where in fact they didn’t do any meaningful changes to continue protecting workers in the long term. So, we were demanding paid sick leave. This essential benefit was not granted to workers — is not. And we are still demanding that these companies provide paid sick leave to workers, so workers can assure if they are sick, they stay home, without going through this hardship that they are experiencing right now. And so, yeah, I think that —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, Magaly.
MAGALY LICOLLI: Yeah. So, I think that workers need to — that we need to create a set of Bill of Rights to protect workers, essential workers, moving forward, with fair wages, with healthcare, with paid sick leave, so that these workers don’t go through these situations as they have been going through right now. And so, we hope that Tyson really does meaningful changes for workers. It’s time to hold them accountable. It’s time for consumers to join this fight, to put pressure to these companies, because we are also responsible to make them to do the right thing for these workers.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Magaly Licolli, we want to thank you for being with us, especially on this day before the holidays, perhaps the largest poultry-consuming holiday of the year. Magaly Licolli, executive director of Venceremos — in English, that means “We will win” — an advocacy group for poultry plant workers, joining us from Springdale, Arkansas, home to Tyson Foods headquarters.
Next up, we look at how this year was the deadliest on record for transgender and gender nonconforming people. Stay with us.