WATERLOO, Iowa — Three Democratic state lawmakers have filed an OSHA complaint against the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo after employees complained of unsafe working conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The complaint alleges multiple violations of federal OSHA standards. It accuses Tyson of failing to protect its workers from being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace. It also accuses Tyson of not using CDC mitigation methods that have been deemed effective by other industries.
“Given the huge spike in positive cases in Black Hawk County over the last week, the accounts we’ve heard from employees at Tyson can no longer be ignored. We need immediate action from Governor Reynolds and Tyson to stop the outbreak in our community, protect workers, and save lives,” said Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, who filed the complaint with OSHA.
On Friday, more than a dozen elected officials urged Tyson to close the Waterloo plant to allow for a proper evaluation of the facility’s compliance with CDC recommended COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Tyson told Channel 13 News last week that the company has implemented measures to keep employees safe. Tyson says plastic barriers have been installed between employees who work close together. They have started requiring employees to wear masks and have temperature screenings before they enter the facility.
Tyson Foods Communications Director Liz Croston said, “We relaxed our attendance policy in March to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick. We’ve also been educating team members on COVID-19, including the importance of following CDC guidelines away from work. When we learn an employee has experienced symptoms and tested positive, they remain on sick leave until they are released by health officials to return to work. We also affirmatively notify anyone who has been in close contact with the positive team member.”
Croston also said plant production areas are sanitized daily to ensure food safety. Break rooms, locker rooms and other areas are also a focus of sanitation efforts.
However, employees say they still feel unsafe working at Tyson plants, according to a letter sent to the company from state legislators.
Employees claim personal protective equipment is not being adequately provided by Tyson, and social distancing measures are not being applied on the operations floor or locker rooms. Some employees have also alleged Tyson is bringing in workers from other sites that have already shut down due to coronavirus outbreaks.
According to the letter, these are some of the anonymous statements made by workers at the plant in Waterloo:
“I am scared I will die because of work, but I need to work to buy food for my family.”
“A coworker vomited at work on the line and management let him continue to work and come back the next day.”
“I can’t stay home sick to protect my family because I don’t want to be fired.”
“I can’t practice social distancing, because of my work. There are a lot of people in front of me and beside me. They gave the workers an unsewing fabric mask. They offer a small bonus to keep the workers. They said the workers can call in [to take the day off] without getting a point, they also said that if they call in they will lose the bonus. Tyson did not care about the worker’s health and safety; they only care about their business.”
Read more statements from Tyson employees here.
Two workers at a Tyson plant in Columbus Junction have died from COVID-19. The plant has been closed since April 6.
Tyson has faced growing pressure in the past few days to also close down their plants in Waterloo and Perry, where other positive cases have been confirmed. Tyson will suspend production for a day at the facility in Perry so that additional deep cleaning can take place.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said Friday that it is the state’s goal to avoid closing the Waterloo plant.
Iowa saw a surge in positive coronavirus cases over the weekend. An additional 389 Iowans have tested positive for the virus. Of the new cases, 261 or 67% of the new cases can be attributed to surveillance testing of meat processing facilities. That includes over 500 completed surveillance tests of Tyson employees and over 500 completed surveillance tests of National Beef employees, for a total of 84 positive and 177 positive respectively.
Latino civil rights organization LULAC announced they would be boycotting Tyson Foods this coming week.
“These plants are ticking time bombs for communities,” said LULAC Political Director Joe Henry. “The safety and health of the workers needs to be in front of the profits. Profits have to be on the back burner. If that doesn’t happen, total chaos.”