WATERLOO — Tyson Foods on Thursday suspended at least two high-level supervisors and launched an investigation into reports a plant manager organized a betting pool to guess how many workers would get COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic.
Tyson CEO and President Dean Banks met with Waterloo employees Thursday. First-shift workers were released early Thursday afternoon, but Gary Mickelson, Tyson public relations director, said the plant is not shutting down, and second-shift workers arrived as scheduled.
“We’ve been through so much as a nation over the past year, and you have worked so hard to help feed the country and the world, and you deserve to be treated with the utmost value and respect for all the hard work you’ve done,” Banks told workers Thursday, as heard in a recorded video provided to The Courier by a Tyson worker. “We have made a tremendous investment to do everything we can to make this a safe place for you to come and work every day.”
The bombshell allegations are included in a lawsuit filed by the families of Tyson workers Sedika Buljic, 58; Reberiano Garcia, 60; Jose Ayala Jr., 44; and Isidro Fernandez, age unknown. Buljic, Garcia and Fernandez died in April, and Ayala died May 25 after a six-week hospitalization.
The lawsuit alleges supervisors were told not to acknowledge COVID-19 symptoms and workers were given bonuses for showing up to work every day — possibly encouraging sick people to clock in.
“You don’t get paid if you don’t show up,” a 59-year-old Tyson worker who asked to remain anonymous said Thursday in Waterloo. “That’s why a lot of them showed up sick.”
Tyson announced it had suspended without pay plant manager Tom Hart — accused of organizing the betting pool — and upper-level manager John Casey, who allegedly called COVID-19 the “glorified flu” and told workers “it’s not a big deal” and “everyone is going to get it.” One 45-year-old Tyson worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said he saw the men escorted out of the plant Thursday.
“It’s not funny to make jokes about people’s lives — bet on their lives,” the 59-year-old worker said. “They don’t care. ... They better not get their jobs back. They won’t have no respect.”
Tyson said it hired law firm Covington & Burling LLP to independently investigate the allegations in the lawsuit. The investigation will be led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, according to the company statement.
The 45-year-old Tyson worker said he was told by supervisors to not be afraid of COVID-19 and not to get tested for the virus. He said he knows three co-workers who got sick and never returned to work.
“It’s unsafe every day. It’s a scary moment coming here,” he said. “But I got bills to pay, so it’s like — you have a choice, but it’s either be without a job or get sick.”
The worker, who relies on his paycheck to feed his children, said he was provided $500 monthly bonuses for coming to work every day. He said his department was told workers would lose their jobs if they didn’t come to work.
The worker described Tyson supervisors as “vengeful” and said they don’t allow workers to speak publicly about plant conditions. One worker told a Courier reporter Thursday that they might be “beaten up” or “chased out” for talking to workers.
“I came straight from the prison system to here,” the 45-year-old worker said. “Coming from the prison system dealing with COVID inside of prison, to coming out here to a plant that has a high percentage of COVID — it’s scary because I got children, and I’m like taking my chances. I got to pay bills.”
County Supervisor Chris Schwartz last spring called for the Waterloo meat processing plant to close during a COVID-19 outbreak there. More than 1,000 of Tyson’s 2,800 Waterloo workers eventually got COVID-19, leading the company to temporarily stop operations.
“If these allegations are true, it’s really disgusting and it takes a very cold heart to make wagers on the lives of your employees,” Schwartz said. “We knew that early on Tyson was being a bad actor in terms of the safety of their employees, and so as shocking and horrific as some of this news is, if these allegations are true, it’s unfortunately not surprising.”
In its statement, Tyson said the lawsuit’s allegations do not represent the values of the company.
“We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant,” the statement said. “We expect every team member at Tyson Foods to operate with the utmost integrity and care in everything we do.”
The 45-year-old Tyson worker said he thinks the company needs to shut down the Waterloo plant to clean and handle the allegations. He said the company should pay people during the pause in operations.
“I don’t like the fact that they keep things covered up and stuff,” he said. “At the end of the day, if somebody has the virus or has COVID, they shouldn’t be told to not get tested. They should be told to get tested and come back when everything is done.”
While employees were being ordered to work despite an alarming rise in the number of COVID-19 cases at the Waterloo Tyson plant, their supervisors were quietly betting among themselves how many would fall ill with the virus.
A 21-year-old Tyson worker, who recently started the job, asked to remain anonymous. He said a few people in his hiring class tested positive for COVID-19. He said supervisors tell people with the virus to leave work, along with others who were near them. They are advised to quarantine for 10 days, he said.
“But I don’t know how that actually works,” the worker said. “Hopefully I don’t get it, though.”
Another Tyson worker, the 59-year-old woman, said the company’s statements about improved safety measures is “just a big lie” and called executives “phony.” She said there is no social distancing, and she sees people without masks. The woman got COVID-19 in April and knows two others in her department who tested positive.
“I heard it was bad — it was coming back bad,” she said. “They try not to talk too loud because they know I’ll run my mouth.”
The woman said Thursday’s meeting with Tyson executives was held outside with little social distancing. She said executives said they would answer questions, but never let employees ask any.
“I go, ‘See — this is the social distancing that’s in the building.’ We don’t have it now? We’ll all have it now with all of us crowding around,” she said. “You know there’s going to be somebody sick in the crowd.”
In their statements, Banks and other executives referred to workers as part of the “Tyson family.”
“They said they we’re family, but they’re not,” the 59-year-old worker said. “They make us work six days a week for over a year. That’s not family oriented, that’s money oriented.”
Five Sullivan Brothers
Sullivan family home
Sullivan brothers at home on Adams in Waterloo
Courier Dec. 21, 1941
Sullivans -- Alleta, James, Albert, Madison
Katherine Sullivan McFarland (1922-2016)
Courier Jan. 4, 1942
Sullivan brothers at home
Courier Feb. 15, 1942
Sullivans with Jack Dempsey
Courier March 4, 1942
Courier March 15, 1942
Courier April 26, 1942
Courier Jan. 12, 1943
Courier Jan. 12, 1943
Alleta and Thomas Sullivan
Alleta Sullivan's letter to the Navy
FDR letter fo Sullivan family
location of USS Juneau sinking
U.S. Navy report, Battle of Guadalcanal Nov. 13, 1942
U.S. Navy survivor battle report Nov. 17, 1942
USS Juneau survivor Lester Zook
USS Juneau survivor Lester Zook, close-up
Courier Jan. 14, 1943
Courier Jan. 15, 1943
Red Sullivan and Margaret Jaros
Alleta Sullivan & Margaret Jaros
Courier Jan. 17, 1943
Courier Jan. 19, 1943
'What have you given for war?'
Courier Jan. 27, 1943
Sullivans telegram from vice president
Courier Feb. 3, 1943
Courier Feb. 7, 1943
Courier Feb. 8, 1943
Courier Feb. 9, 1943
U.S. Navy battle report
Navy docs -- President approves USS The Sullivans
Courier Feb. 10, 1943
Courier Feb. 14, 1943
Genevieve and Alleta Sullivan
Courier Feb. 23, 1943
Courier Feb. 24, 1943
Courier April 4, 1943
Navy doc -- USS The Sullivans launch speech April 4, 1943
Courier April 5, 1943
Genevieve heads to Navy training
Genevieve Sullivan WAVE
Courier May 30, 1943
Courier July 11, 1943
Courier Aug. 6, 1943
Purple Hearts bestowed
U.S. Navy Sullivan Purple Hearts document Jan. 24, 1944
Courier Jan. 25, 1944
Courier Feb. 4, 1944
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Sullivan movie scene
Sullivan movie cast
Courier March 19, 1944
Courier Dec. 31, 1944
Genevieve Sullivan and Murray Davidson
Courier May 1, 1959
Courier Nov. 11, 1962
Courier Sept. 20, 1964
Courier March 2, 1965
Murray Davidson Jr. joins Naval Reserve
Courier April 23, 1973
Alleta Sullivan funeral
Genevieve Davidson obituary
Plaque Schoitz Memorial Hospital
Courier Aug. 6, 1992
Dedication of Convention Center
Sullivan Brothers Museum -- outside
Sullivan Brothers Museum statues
Katherine McFarland, 2008
Katherine McFarland, 2012
Sullivan Black Hawks hockey jerseys
Sullivans soap carving
Juneau wreckage bittersweet find for Sullivans, families
WATERLOO -- Saturday's discovery of the wreckage of the USS Juneau, on which Waterloo's five Sullivan brothers served and perished with nearly 700 shipmates during World War II, was an emotional, bittersweet experience for the fallen sailors' descendants.
"There's over 700 Navy families affected by this and my heart goes out to all those people," said Kelly Sullivan, granddaughter of Albert Sullivan and grandniece of George, Francis, Joseph and Madison Sullivan, who all died after the Juneau was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk on Nov. 13, 1942.
"For me, it's like finding my grandfather's grave," said Knute Swensen of Huntington Beach, Calif., the grandson of the Juneau's commanding officer, Capt. Lyman K. Swenson, also among the Juneau dead.
The crew of the Research Vessel Petrel, on an expedition financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, found the Juneau's wreck at the bottom of "Ironbottom Sound" off Guadalcanal in the Solomons on St. Patrick's Day.
In an audio accompanying a video of the wreckage, Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for the expedition, noted it was appropriate the Juneau's remains were discovered on St. Patrick's Day, given the Sullivan brothers' Irish heritage.
"The luck of the Irish was with them," Kelly Sullivan said, echoing a wish she made for the USS The Sullivans, the current Navy destroyer named for her grandfather and great uncles, when she christened the ship in Bath, Maine, in 1995. She is the official Navy sponsor of that ship.
This wknd Paul Allen’s team found wreckage of WW2 USS Juneau in Pacific Ocean In 1942 this ship was sunk by Japanese torpedo carrying the 5 Sullivan brothers of Waterloo These Iowa heroes + hundred of others lost their life on that ship protecting our country Shld not b forgotten— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) March 20, 2018
The crew of the Petrel sent a message to The Courier, which said: "Our team is comprised of professional subsea operators and engineers with years of experience in the industry who are truly humbled with the opportunity to honor our fallen servicemen and provide some closure to their families."
The crew credited Allen with making the expedition possible.
Ironically, Kelly Sullivan was at the USS The Sullivans on St. Patrick's Day at its home port of Mayport, Fla., attending a retirement celebration for one of its former commanding officers.
"When this discovery happened, I was sitting on the fantail of the Sullivans...It's unbelievable," Sullivan said.
On her return trip home Sunday, she heard word of the discovery from U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Rich Brown, commander of Navy surface forces and a former commanding officer of the USS The Sullivans. Brown was in Waterloo last November for a 75th anniversary commemoration of the Juneau's sinking. On Monday, Knute Swensen contacted her.
"It's bittersweet, this feeling," Sullivan said. "There's closure. It also opens a wound."
She said her father, Albert's son, Jim Sullivan, reacted with surprise and had similar feelings.
"My first thought was my prayers for all the Juneau families, not just the Sullivan brothers," Kelly Sullivan said, and all veterans and their families. She said her great-grandmother, Alleta Sullivan, never really had closure because her sons' bodies were never recovered and held out hope they may have survived.
Swensen said he watched the Petrel's undersea video in amazement as the crew made out the Juneaus name inscribed across the fantail.
"Seeing that video gave me chills," he said.
He also thought of his father, U.S. Navy Cmdr Robert Swensen, who passed away in April 2016 at age 93 and was very close to his father, the Juneau commander. Knute's grandfather's surname was misspelled as "Swenson" by a staff member at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and he never had it corrected. It was at Annapolis, when Robert was a cadet, that the Juneau commander and his son had their last meeting.
In an audio accompanying the video, Kraft of the Petrel expedition notes the ship's bow and stern were found relatively close to each other but the ship's debris was scattered over a mile on the ocean floor -- an indication of the devastating explosion which sunk her.
Most of the sailors were killed during the actual sinking; more than 100 died at sea in the days that followed from wounds, exposure or shark attacks, including George Sullivan, the oldest of the brothers. Ten sailors survived the actual sinking plus a four-person medical crew sent to the USS San Francisco to tend to wounded there prior to the attack.
Swensen hopes the Juneau crew's valor is also remembered. The ship earned multiple battles stars for the engagements in which it fought -- including one the night before its sinking, when it and other outgunned American ships turned back a Japanese task force headed for embattled U.S troops at Guadalcanal.
Sullivan praised Paul Allen's passion for pursuing the expedition -- a lesson she used it as an example for her third-graders at Lincoln Elementary School in Cedar Falls.
"I really admire Mr. Allen and his crew for having the faith to do this," she said, and encouraged her students to pursue their passions as well.
Both were in New York this past November at the 75th anniversary commemoration of the Juneau's sinking at the same Staten Island pier where the ship was commissioned into the Navy in 1997. That ceremony was across New York harbor from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the Juneau was commissioned into the Navy and sailed out of the harbor, never to return.
She hopes the USS The Sullivans can sail to the Juneau's final resting place on a future mission, with some of its sailors surviving family members.
Samuel Overton, 22, works at the Tyson plant and said he had COVID-19. Sometimes he feels like he still has symptoms.
“I just know that overall when they say if you’re sick stay home, they’re still taking people’s points,” Overton said. “It was rough, but I survived it. ... I think being at work is probably the main place anyone would catch it because there’s thousands of people from all different walks of life.”
Both production shifts are scheduled to operate normally at the Tyson plant Friday, Mickelson said.
The Waterloo facility is Tyson’s largest pork plant in the United States. The facility employs approximately 2,800 workers who process approximately 19,500 hogs per day.
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