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Iowa meatpacking plants put lives on the line in COVID pandemic
By Sydney Czyzon, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
Mar. 15, 2021 8:00 am, Updated: Mar. 15, 2021 10:42 am
Shoulder-to-shoulder production lines. Crowded shift changes. Packed break and locker rooms.
The environment of Iowa meatpacking plants proved the perfect place for COVID-19 to spread. Weak mitigation efforts by companies early in the pandemic made it worse. Thousands of workers became infected with the virus, some dying. Meatpacking infections spread into entire communities, workers giving the virus to spouses who worked in nursing homes or neighbors at the grocery store.
The Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo saw more than 1,000 of its workers get the virus. It temporarily shut down production in late April after not having enough healthy workers to keep up operations, the company said. The decision came after weeks of pressure from local officials.
'It really is because of Tyson that Black Hawk County sits in the predicament that we sit in today,' said Tony Thompson, the Black Hawk County sheriff. 'We should've never had the amount of exponential growth in positive cases and the amount of deaths that we had early on. We should've never had any of that, and it's all due to Tyson.'
Nearly 800 workers at the Tyson plant in Dakota City, Neb., adjacent to Sioux City, were infected with the virus by late May. The outbreak led the company to temporarily close the plant.
The Storm Lake Tyson plant saw about 600 workers test positive for the virus, the company said in June. More than 500 workers tested positive at the Columbus Junction Tyson plant, state records show.
Tyson plants had triple the number of COVID-19 cases as other American meatpacking companies, according to a report by nonprofit Food Environment Reporting Network. This amounted to more than 11,000 workers getting infected. Tyson saw twice as many employee COVID-19 deaths as plants at other companies, the report said.
The company said it invested more than $540 million across its U.S. facilities to implement walk-through temperature scanners, workstation dividers, social distance monitors, COVID-19 testing, added pay and benefits and more health services staff, including a chief medical officer. The company plans to open health clinics for workers and their families this year.
Workers at Seaboard Triumph Foods in Sioux City were infected with COVID-19 after complaining about inadequate protections. More than 100 workers had contracted COVID-19 by May last year at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in Denison.
The Iowa Premium Beef Plant in Tama experienced an April 2020 outbreak that left nearly 40 percent of its 850 workers with COVID-19. The company suspended production in April.
Gov. Kim Reynolds publicly opposed the closing of meatpacking plants like the one in Waterloo, worried about possible disruption to the food supply chain.
Then-President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to sign an executive order calling on meatpacking plants to stay open. In June, Iowa legislators and Reynolds passed protections against potential COVID-19 lawsuits lodged against meatpacking companies.
'It felt like we were a step behind corporate Tyson — that they beat us to the punch,' Thompson said. 'They got to the governor before we did. She was fighting with corporate America rather than her own citizens.'
Thompson, an often outspoken critic of Tyson during the outbreak, appeared in prominent media outlets like CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times. Early in the pandemic, he began to get calls about meatpacking workers sick with COVID-19. He was forceful in his warnings, but felt he could not do enough to spur action.
He wonders whether more TV appearances or more dramatic pleas would've stopped the escalating infections.
'That's something that's going to stay with me,' Thompson said. 'That's something that's going to be chalked up for me as a loss, and I don't take losing well. It's a frustration for me. ... I re-evaluate and I say, 'What differently could I have done?''
Allegations released in November from a wrongful-death lawsuit against Tyson included claims that Waterloo manager Tom Hart organized a betting pool to wager on employee infections. Other allegations included Waterloo managers ignoring coronavirus symptoms and giving bonuses to workers who showed up every day even if they were sick.
Tyson later suspended at least two upper-level managers at the Waterloo plant. After an investigation, the company fired seven of its managers, including Hart.
Another complaint against Tyson claimed the company lied to interpreters about the scope of COVID-19 infections in the Waterloo plant. Like many other meatpacking plants, the facility employs non-English speaking workers who rely on interpreters for information.
Community advocates, longtime unionists and workers criticized the Waterloo Tyson union for being largely absent during the outbreak.
Waterloo Tyson workers started getting COVID-19 vaccines in March. Thompson said the company's vaccination clinics distributed Black Hawk County's first doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, approved for emergency use alongside the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Tyson did not share how many of its workers have been vaccinated. The company is offering up to four hours of regular pay to workers who get shots to encourage widespread vaccination.
Thompson visited the Waterloo plant in April 2020, and was alarmed by the crowded conditions and lack of transparency. But he recently visited with Tyson officials to discuss the logistics of vaccine distribution and he said he is optimistic.
He said he intended for officials' initial interactions with Tyson during COVID-19 to spur collaboration. He hoped local officials could serve as a 'force multiplier' to fight the virus spread.
'We're not out to expose corporate secrets,' Thompson said. 'We're not out to embarrass a company. ... We want hem to do well, and we want them to be successful. We want them to look good.'
The Tyson plant in Waterloo is the country's largest pork processing plant. It employs about 3,050 people, the company said.
Tyson did not answer questions from The Courier about updated COVID-19 infections and deaths linked to the Waterloo plant. The Black Hawk County Health Department also did not provide the data.
Tom Loewy of the Quad-City Times and Dolly Butz of the Sioux City Journal contributed to this report.