Staff Columnist

Reynolds abandoned balance with lives in the balance

FILE - In this May 1, 2020, file photo, a worker leaves the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibe
FILE - In this May 1, 2020, file photo, a worker leaves the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

Gov. Kim Reynolds often talks of “balance” as she describes her approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. Protect lives and livelihoods. Sounds so sensible.

But for a dose of reality, read through the lawsuit filed in June and amended twice recently against Tyson Foods by the families of three employees who contracted the coronavirus at the company’s Waterloo pork plant. Sedika Buljic, Reberiano Leno Garcia and Jose Ayala died of complications from COVID-19.

There’s no “balance.” All there is are pages and pages and pages of unconscionable and callous conduct on the part of plant management, all the while top executives lobbied for liability protections. Reynolds and her administration stood by and mimicked the company’s line that everything was fine, as hundreds of workers got sick.

According to the lawsuit now in U.S. District Court, Tyson, which has operations in China, including in the province where the virus was first detected, understood the threat as early as January. And yet by March, when cases started to crop up in Iowa, the company failed to proactively provide protective equipment or put distancing practices in place.

Instead, according to the lawsuit, Waterloo plant managers deceived their employees. An amendment to the suit filed last week charges that managers told interpreters behind closed doors in early April to tell immigrant employees that “everything is fine” and there is no outbreak. Workers were to be told Black Hawk County public health officials had “cleared the plant.”

In reality, local public health officials and County Sheriff Tony Thompson were urging the company to shut down the plant, where, on April 10, they found workers still shoulder to shoulder with many not wearing face coverings.

An April 11 complaint about the plant came to Iowa OSHA. The case was swiftly closed on April 28 with no on-site inspection. Reynolds later said OSHA’s action was appropriate.

Reynolds told reporters on April 20 she opposed a shutdown.

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“These also are essential businesses and an essential workforce, and without them people’s lives and our food supply will be impacted. So we must do our part to keep them open in a safe and responsible way,” Reynolds said.

“Safe and responsible” apparently included a betting pool for plant managers wagering on how many workers would contract the virus, according to an amendment to the suit filed in November. Managers involved have been suspended.

In a conference call also on April 20 with Reynolds, according to the lawsuit, top Tyson executives downplayed the outbreak and exaggerated safety measures.

Reynolds bought it.

“I’ve been on the phone with the CEO and the management team for all Tyson plants to talk about what they’re doing proactively to make sure that they’re protecting their workforce…,” Reynolds told reporters that day. Two days later the stricken plant shut down.

I’m sure Tyson has well-paid attorneys working on its rigorous defense. But if even a fraction of this stuff is true, it’s a violation of not only workers’ legal rights but also their human rights.

Companies act irresponsibly when they know no one will hold them accountable. Tyson knew Reynolds, a reliable ally of big agricultural interests — with campaign donations to prove it — would raise no objection to exploiting workers. With lives in the balance, Reynolds picked pork and profits over people.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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