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Families Of Workers Killed By Covid-19 Sue Tyson Over Waterloo Outbreak

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Family members of three workers who died after contracting the coronavirus at the Tyson plant in Waterloo are suing the company.

The families of three workers who died after contracting the coronavirus in a Tyson meatpacking plant in Waterloo are suing the company. In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Black Hawk County, the families allege fraudulent misrepresentation, gross negligence and wanton disregard for worker safety.

At least 1,031 workers at the Waterloo site have tested positive for the highly contagious virus, as an outbreak exploded in the plant in April, infecting more than a third of the workforce, which is largely made up of immigrants and refugees.

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, the outbreak at the Tyson plant in Waterloo is still one of the single largest clusters of cases in the country, according to a New York Times analysis.

Now top company executives and local supervisors are facing legal recourse in the deaths of three of those workers.

The lawsuit filed by the families of Sedika Buljic, Reberiano Garcia, and Jose Ayala alleges the company purposefully deceived employees about the outbreak in order to induce them to keep working despite the risk, thereby knowingly and intentionally putting “profits over the health, safety and well-being of their Waterloo employees."

“What we’re seeing is borderline criminal,” Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said in April in regards to the company’s operations.

The families argue that the company failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment, failed to socially distance workers, allowed or encouraged sick workers to return, willfully mislead workers about the scale of transmission within the facility, and even “warned them not to discuss COVID-19 at work”. Meanwhile, the company suspended business travel and ordered corporate employees to work remotely.

“The Executive Defendants knew or should have known that their conduct was probable to cause employees to become seriously ill or die. The Executive Defendants consciously failed to avoid the danger. They recognized the danger of a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility and failed to take sufficient precautions to avoid an outbreak,” the filing reads.

Despite claiming its “top priority” is the safety of its workers, the company initially refused to close the plant, its largest pork facility in the country, despite repeated calls from workers, elected officials and public health experts, who also noted the critical language and cultural barriers many workers face as immigrants and refugees.

“What grieves my heart is we have human beings running from war-torn countries, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, human trafficking, running to the United States for a better way of life, only to die as a result of being infected with this COVID virus,” said Pastor Belinda Creighton-Smith at a Black Hawk County Board of Health meeting in April.  

The suit names multiple Tyson executives, as well as the Waterloo plant manager, and direct supervisors of the three workers who died.

The suit also alleges the company allowed workers from at least one other plant that had been closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak to enter the Waterloo facility, without adequately quarantining them.

The families also note that Tyson representatives lobbied Gov. Kim Reynolds and President Donald Trump, and ultimately won support from both. Reynolds refused to order the closure of the plant, and local municipalities lacked the legal authority to do so.

Last week, Reynolds signed a bill into law shielding companies, including meat processing firms, nursing homes and health care providers, from lawsuits related to the coronavirus, though there are exceptions for cases that result in hospitalization or death.

The workers’ families argue the suit is necessary to “punish” Tyson for its “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety," and to deter similar companies from “jeopardizing workers’ lives in the future."

The families of the dead workers are seeking compensation for medical and burial expenses, as well as pain, suffering, emotional distress and loss of love and companionship as a result of the deaths of their family members.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter