Tyson fires Waterloo managers tied to alleged betting on COVID-19 rate

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

Tyson Foods on Dec. 16 fired seven managers at its Waterloo pork processing plant following an investigation into allegations that managers and supervisors made bets on the number of workers who would be sickened by the coronavirus.

Arkansas-based Tyson last month hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the gaming allegations after they were raised in wrongful death lawsuits filed by families of workers at the plant who died of COVID-19.

The managers’ alleged betting scheme occurred early in the pandemic as the coronavirus began tearing through the Waterloo plant, where about 1,000 of 2,800 workers tested positive for it in early May.

Tyson Foods CEO Dean Banks said in a statement Wednesday that “behaviors exhibited by these individuals do not represent the Tyson core values.”

Tyson “took immediate and appropriate action to get to the truth. Now that the investigation has concluded, we are taking action based on the findings,” Banks said. “We value our people and expect everyone on the team, especially our leaders, to operate with integrity and care in everything we do.”

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company will not release the names of employees who were fired, citing privacy concerns, nor will the company release additional information from the investigation.

“We can tell you that Mr. Holder and his team looked specifically at the gaming allegations and found sufficient evidence for us to terminate those involved,” Mickelson said in an email.

Tyson said Wednesday that Holder will continue to work with the company “to help us as we continue to look for ways to enhance a trusting and respectful workplace.”

Iowa Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat who lives near the Waterloo plant and represents parts of Black Hawk County, said Tyson’s action was “a good first step, but it’s definitely not enough.”

“The company will have to do more to convince me and the community that it values its workers,” said Smith, who’s among several community leaders who have raised concerns about worker safety at the plant amid the public health emergency.

Smith said he expects Holder will continue investigating Tyson’s practices.

“You don’t bring in Eric Holder, the former attorney general, unless you think you’ve got a widespread problem,” he said.

But “time will only tell if the company will operate with integrity and transparency when it comes to people’s lives,” Smith said.

Joe Henry, vice president of Latino Forward, a national advocacy group, said the problems Tyson has with its managers is rooted in racism and is more widespread than in one plant or company.

“Managers don’t see these people as humans,” Henry said. “They’re just part of the machinery. ... Workers are viewed as expendable instead of essential.”

Also Wednesday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer sent a letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, asking it to open an investigation into Tyson for making “misleading disclosures to investors,” including the New York City Retirement Systems, about its worker health and safety protections, and resulting risks, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tyson launched its investigation after attorneys representing the families of five deceased workers from the Waterloo plant filed an amended complaint in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa last month. The complaint accused plant manager Tom Hart of organizing a “cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool” among other managers and supervisors.

A subsequent amended complaint alleges that senior managers at the Waterloo plant lied to interpreters about the scope of coronavirus dangers at the facility, which employs significant numbers of immigrant workers. The company declined last month to comment on the new allegations.

After learning of the betting pool allegations last month, Tyson said Banks, the CEO, and other company officials immediately traveled to Waterloo to meet with plant team members and community leaders “to reinforce Tyson’s commitment to them and the community.” They returned to the plant Wednesday.

“The commitment and passion that our team members exhibit every day is core to who we are at Tyson,” Banks said. “We were very upset to learn of the behaviors found in the allegations, as we expect our leaders to treat all team members with the highest levels of respect and integrity.”

Tyson said its top priority “is and remains the health and safety of our team members.” The company has said it has invested heavily in actions to keep employees safe, which include adding barriers between workers, conducting mass coronavirus testing and checking employees’ temperatures before they start their shifts.

In this May 1 photo, a sign stands in front of the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. The coronavirus is devastating the nation’s meatpacking communities — places like Waterloo and Sioux City in Iowa, Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn. Within weeks, the outbreaks around slaughterhouses have turned into full-scale disasters.
Following an investigation into allegations at Waterloo’s Tyson Fresh Meats, managers and supervisors made bets on the number of workers who would be sickened by the coronavirus, seven were fired.