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Tyson facing another lawsuit over employee COVID-19 death

Associated Press

Storm Lake, Iowa

Tyson Foods has fired seven top managers at its largest pork plant after an independent investigation into allegations that they bet on how many workers would test positive for the coronavirus, the company announced Wednesday.

The company said the investigation led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revealed troubling behavior that resulted in the firings at the plant in Waterloo, Iowa. An outbreak centered around the plant infected more than 1,000 employees, at least six of whom died.

“We value our people and expect everyone on the team, especially our leaders, to operate with integrity and care in everything we do,” Tyson Foods President and CEO Dean Banks said in a statement. “The behavior exhibited by these individuals does not represent the Tyson core values, which is why we took immediate and appropriate action to get to the truth.”

Banks traveled to the Waterloo plant on Wednesday to discuss the actions with employees. The company did not release the names of those fired or detailed findings of the investigation.

Tyson suspended several top officials last month and retained the law firm Covington & Burling LLP, where Holder is a partner, to conduct the investigation.

Lawyers for the families of four deceased Waterloo workers allege in lawsuits that plant manager Tom Hart organized a buy-in betting pool for supervisors to wager on how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.

Hart allegedly organized the pool last spring as the virus spread through the Waterloo plant. It eventually tore through the broader Waterloo community.

The lawsuits also allege plant managers pressured employees to keep working, even through sickness, and that the company waited too long to shut down the plant to stem the outbreak.

Mel Orchard, an attorney for the deceased workers’ families, said the firings confirm the authenticity of some “ghoulish” allegations in the lawsuits. He said Tyson “gambled with workers’ lives” by downplaying the virus and not offering adequate safety precautions.

“I’m grateful that they might be getting to the bottom of it, but it’s way too late for some people,” he said. “I hope Eric Holder stays on this case and continues to investigate the real issue: How is it that more than one thousand employees at one plant got sick and many died?”

The lawsuits allege that managers told workers they had a responsibility to stay on the job to ensure that Americans didn’t go hungry, even while they started avoiding the plant floor themselves because they were afraid of contracting the virus.

The lawsuits name Hart, managers John Casey and Cody Brustkern, safety manager Bret Tapken and human resources director James Hook as defendants. They have not returned messages seeking comment.

Tyson vowed Wednesday to open more avenues for employees to communicate concerns, to create a working group to strengthen collaborations with community leaders and to reinforce the importance of its values. Banks said Holder’s team would help “look for ways to enhance a trusting and respectful workplace.”

Separately, the family of a Tyson Foods employee is alleging in a lawsuit that he died from COVID-19 after the meat processing giant failed to implement safety protocols to guard against the coronavirus at the plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, where he worked.

Michael Everhard, 65, of Fonda, died of COVID-19 on June 18, three weeks after being diagnosed with the virus. His family contends he became infected at the Storm Lake plant where he worked for 27 years, The Sioux City Journal reported.

The lawsuit, filed by Everhard’s three children, argues that Tyson and its managers required him and other employees to continue working in an environment “rife with coronavirus” and didn’t implement safety precautions to protect them from contracting the virus, Storm Lake attorney Willis Hamilton said.

In response, Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said the company has implemented several measures at its facilities that meet or exceed federal guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19.