Families of three workers who died of Covid-19 sue Tyson for allegedly lying about outbreak

The lawsuit could test the limits of the Defense Production Act. It could also be thrown out.

On April 12, 2020, nearly two dozen Tyson employees were admitted to an Iowa emergency room with symptoms of Covid-19, according to a new lawsuit. About five days later, 20 local officials signed a letter asking the Waterloo, Iowa, plant to voluntarily shut down to contain the outbreak. But it wasn’t until April 22 that the plant ceased operations. By that point, according to the lawsuit, Tyson’s hand had been forced: There simply weren’t enough healthy employees to continue breaking down pork. 

Around that time, Tyson was busy lobbying the White House and local officials to classify meat processing as “essential” under the Defense Production Act. It eventually succeeded. The company also waged an aggressive public relations campaign, taking out full-page ads in several newspapers to warn of potential meat shortages. It was later reported that the company had exported record amounts of meat to China that month.  

The meatpacking giant’s business practices during the pandemic have drawn increasing scrutiny as more information comes to light. Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker called for an investigation of Tyson and other meatpackers after the export data came to light. In May, the family of a meat cutter who contracted Covid-19 and died filed a lawsuit claiming the company failed to provide her with personal protective equipment. 

All told, more than 1,000 cases of Covid-19 were linked to the Waterloo plant. Five employees died.

And last week, the families of three workers at the Waterloo, Iowa facility who died of Covid-19, filed a new lawsuit claiming that managers lied to them about the spread of Covid-19 at their place of work, that the company failed to institute adequate workplace safety measures, and that supervisors allowed or encouraged sick or symptomatic workers to continue working. 

The lawsuit, filed in Iowa’s Black Hawk County, alleges that symptomatic workers were not sent home, contrary to management’s assurances. It also alleged that employees were told absent coworkers were sick with the flu, and that they were warned not to talk about Covid-19 at work. 

Further, the lawsuit alleges that Tyson failed to implement social distancing measures. It acknowledges that the company did set up temperature checks in early April, but asserts that fever is not always associated with Covid-19, and sick employees can avoid detection by taking fever-reducing medication. Employees were incentivized to continue working via $500 “thank you” bonuses promised to workers who showed up for every scheduled shift over a three-month period. 

Wrongful death lawsuits like the Waterloo case could test the reach of the Defense Production Act as a protection for companies as workers and their families impacted by Covid-19 seek to hold their employers liable.

All told, more than 1,000 cases of Covid-19 were linked to the Waterloo plant. Five employees died. Yet an investigation by Iowa’s workplace safety agency found no violations. Addressing the lawsuit, a spokesperson for Tyson told the Associated Press the company was saddened by the deaths of its workers, and that the company’s “top priority is the health and safety of its workers.” He said the company’s safety practices met and exceeded federal standards. (The last part is likely true—federal standards guiding companies’ response to Covid-19 have been notably lax, and recommendations for meatpackers remain optional.)

Wrongful death lawsuits like the Waterloo case could test the reach of the Defense Production Act as a protection for companies, as workers and their families impacted by Covid-19 seek to hold their employers liable. According to a New York Times editorial published in May, President Trump said meatpacking companies would be shielded from legal liability as long as they follow federal safety guidelines, “which have proved to be wholly inadequate.” It’s unclear whether the president’s executive order will prove relevant in lawsuits such as this one: As we reported in May, companies are shielded from directly paying employees’ medical bills by the workers’ compensation system, so long as their employers provided personal protective equipment and enforced social distancing. One of the legal experts we interviewed said Covid-19-related wrongful death suits are likely to be tossed. It remains to be seen whether lawsuits like this one, which seek to prove that Tyson ignored federal guidance, stand a chance in court. 

According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, at least 102 meatpacking workers have died of Covid-19, and thousands have fallen ill. Despite the company’s assurances that its plants are adhering to strict federal and safety guidance, Tyson disclosed on Saturday that 371 employees at a chicken processing plant in Missouri had tested positive for the virus. 

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter.