Workers, officials say too little too late after Tyson closes Waterloo pork plant: ‘All they talked about was production’

After more than a week of public pressure, Tyson announced Wednesday morning it will “indefinitely suspend operations” at its Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant that employs 2,800 people. However, workers and some officials say the halt comes too late.

Almost half of Black Hawk County, Iowa’s Covid-19 cases are connected to the plant, according to the county health department. As of Tuesday, there were 182 cases linked to the plant. Wednesday, the county reported 379 total cases.

In a statement, Tyson told CNN the plant, which is the company’s largest pork plant, had already “been running at reduced levels of production due to worker absenteeism.”

“Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production,” said Tyson Fresh Meats Group President Steve Stouffer in the statement. He said protecting team members is the company’s “top priority.”

CNN spoke to three employees who work in the facility but did not want to be named for fear of losing their jobs. They describe conditions and priorities that are at odds with statements given by Tyson and the state’s governor, Kim Reynolds, who said they were taking care of their employees.

“You know what’s heading this way,” one plant employee, a cut floor worker, explained to CNN. “Why wait? Why wait ’til it’s too late?”

The cut floor worker said he’s grateful to local officials for continuing to pressure the company to shutter the factory, but he took umbrage with the reasons Tyson offered for doing so.

“Complaining about worker absenteeism as workers have died is even more distasteful than their claim workers are their first priority,” he told CNN on Wednesday.

Local officials said they are relieved but still deeply concerned.

“This will relieve future issues with our outbreak and slow the spread now (hopefully),” said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson.

However, Thompson — who, as the chairman of the emergency management commission, oversees the county’s coronavirus response — also said the move is “a little too late for our deaths and the hundreds already infected.”

“The damage is done,” Thomspon said Tuesday night, before the closure was announced. “The cows are out of the barn, they’re down the road, we can’t get them back. We can’t fix it. All we can do is react to the problems they’ve created for us. “

Tyson said that “for the privacy of our team members we are not disclosing numbers of confirmed cases in our facilities.”

Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart told CNN the plant should have been closed sooner.

“Implementing safety precautions at this particular point, we believe it’s too late,” he said Wednesday. “At this point closing, cleaning, testing people is the best scenario moving forward. And I understand the impact that this has on our national food chain, but in order to be able to stop the spread, this was the best course of action to support the workers that prepare our food.”

Reynolds made no mention of the plant’s closure in her daily news conference remarks Wednesday but broadly defended her actions.

“There’s always more we could have done, but I think we’ve tried to be very proactive,” Reynolds said.

According to the statement from Tyson Foods, “affected Waterloo team members will continue to be compensated while the plant is closed. The timing of resumption of operations will depend on a variety of factors, including the outcome of team member testing for COVID-19.”

‘I’m not going to risk their lives to cut some damn hogs up’

Plant employees, like the ones CNN spoke with, have been deemed essential employees as they help keep the nation’s food supply chain intact. While they understand the importance of maintaining that supply chain, the pork processing plant employees expressed ongoing concerns that not enough was done to protect them from Covid-19.

“I hear the argument of, we’ve got to keep the food supply chain open,” the cut floor worker said, but “with all these tests coming back, if the numbers get up there, it warrants a shutdown.”

Several other meat processing plants across the country, including a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a JBS meat processing plant in Worthington, Minnesota, have closed temporarily after suspected outbreaks were reported.

“I want my job, but I want a safe job,” another employee told CNN. “I got family and grandkids that I love, and I’m not going to risk their lives to cut some damn hogs up.”

Donald, who requested CNN use only his first name, is a longtime Tyson employee. He said he tested positive for Covid-19 nearly two weeks ago and has been recuperating at home from the virus. Donald said he’s frustrated that Tyson didn’t shut down sooner. He said he knew several of the team members who have died as a result of complications of the virus.

“Tyson owes a lot of people an apology,” Donald told CNN. “I love working with Tyson, but as I see it, Tyson has no morals for me (or) for my life. If they did, they would have shut it down, and I wouldn’t be infected with this virus right now.”

He tells CNN that practicing social distancing in the meat processing facility wasn’t happening and was nearly impossible to put into practice.

“I work about two feet from my coworkers,” Donald said. “I’m about an arm’s length away from my partner. It’s close.”

CNN repeatedly asked Tyson for comment on the claims made by employees in this article. Tyson addressed some of the concerns over availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing at the plants and case notification.

In a statement provided to CNN on Friday, the company said, “plant production areas are sanitized daily to ensure food safety, and we have significantly stepped up deep cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities, especially in employee breakrooms, locker rooms and other areas to protect our team members.”

However, it is unclear when some of the sanitizing and cleaning measures were actually implemented. The cut floor worker told CNN he saw contractors taking measurements for partitions on the slaughter line Friday. Other partitions, such as those in the cafeteria, have been in place “a little more than a week,” they said.

Tyson also implemented a system several weeks ago to check the temperatures of all employees entering the Waterloo facility, using infrared technology to scan their faces as they arrive to work.

“I don’t think Tyson gives two sh*ts about their employees. I really don’t,” Thompson told CNN.

“All they talked about was production, production, production, production. That’s all they talked about,” Thompson said of his conversations with the company officials.

He visited the plant with county health officials April 11, after he said some employees had already tested positive for the virus and painted a picture similar to what employees told CNN.

There are “2,700 employees, three shifts, and they only cleaned it once a day. This is after they knew that they already had positive tests coming out of that plant,” Thompson told CNN. “There was no enforcement of PPE, there was no requirement. In fact, some people we saw walking around actually had masks, but they were wearing them around their neck,” he said.

“I was surprised by the lack of measures, but I was further surprised by what they thought they were doing right,” he said.

“It was so bad that we all walked out of there saying, ‘Oh my God, these people just blew up our defensive line. We are so in trouble,'” he added.

Tyson did not address Thompson’s comments.

Tyson said it installed plastic or plexiglass dividers along the cafeteria tables where employees eat lunch. Two employees said the cafeteria dividers probably helped to an extent, but they stressed that the cafeteria is always very crowded. Most of the time, employees were still sitting shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues as they ate.

The employees said other crowded areas, such as the locker rooms and hallways, were not being modified in any way to promote social distancing.

“We’re all extremely congested, especially at the shift exchange in the locker room,” a third Tyson employee told CNN. She is a production line worker.

Tyson said that it is “selecting team members to serve as social distancing monitors at our facilities” to make sure proper social distancing practices are in use.

No tests, no masks

All three Tyson employees told CNN they’re frustrated at a lack of transparency from the company about the number of infections in the plant. The cut floor worker said it’s been hard to learn which coworkers have tested positive for the virus and multiple employees told CNN they’ve had to rely on word-of-mouth or social media posts to find out who has the virus.

Tyson told CNN on Wednesday that “we notify anyone who has been in close contact with” a person confirmed to have Covid-19 as part of its protocol.

The production line worker said she started calling out from work after hearing that colleagues who work near her in the plant tested positive for coronavirus. She said she’s staying home to protect her children. The production line worker said she tried to get tested Monday but was denied a test by the local testing site where she was instructed to go.

“They told me if I don’t have any symptoms, they won’t test me,” she said. Another member of her household was showing symptoms of the virus, she said, and he was able to get a test.

Gov. Reynolds announced last week that 2,700 testing kits would be sent to the Waterloo Tyson plant to test workers.

Tyson said Wednesday its workforce “will be invited to come to the plant later this week for COVID-19 testing.” Reynolds said Wednesday that the state of Iowa would be testing all Waterloo Tyson employees starting Friday.

Tyson employees said they had to scramble to procure their own masks after the company started phasing in guidelines asking employees to wear them. Employees said Tyson began mandating the masks April 7, but the company did not supply them to employees on a regular basis.

Donald said the plant’s nurse’s office put up a sign saying there were no masks available. He said he purchased one himself, which he would clean with bleach, dry and wear the next day.

The production line worker said the company provided bandanas at one point, but she said her colleagues who utilized them complained they were cheaply made and started fraying right away. She said a family member sewed her a mask instead.

When asked about these allegations, Tyson said it “recently made the decision to provide and require the use of surgical-style face coverings in our facilities” but noted that “previously” they simply required everyone to wear a face covering.

“I feel like she’s favoring the animals more than us’

Iowa’s governor has regularly stressed the important role Iowa plays in the nation’s food chain, citing statistics that say Iowa provides a third of the nation’s pork products. She says if plants such as Waterloo are forced to shut down, it will disrupt that supply chain.

“If we aren’t able to move (the hogs) through the process, at some point, we’re going to have to be talking about euthanizing hogs, and we’re not that far from it,” Reynolds said Monday. “It will be devastating.”

The third employee said she found this argument insulting.

“I feel like she’s favoring the animals more than us,” the employee said. “I don’t see why they wouldn’t be able to keep them there (at Tyson) at least a week, so they could clean the plant.”

Reynolds has been hesitant to take action in Waterloo and made it clear she was not eager to take drastic measures.

“Our goal is to hope that we don’t (shut down the Waterloo plant),” she said last Friday.

“We haven’t felt, as a state health department, that there is a need to issue a closure order,” Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said the same day.

Over the past few days, Reynolds regularly referenced positive conversations with company leadership as justification to keep the plant open. Reynolds noted she spoke with members of the Waterloo human resources team last Thursday and the Tyson CEO on Monday.

“We’re going to continue to work with the plants and be proactive,” Reynolds said Monday.

Reynolds explained Monday that because Tyson has been “complying” with infection control measures, “I don’t believe it’s going to take an executive order at this time.”

“They are critical infrastructure and it’s essential that we do everything we can to protect the workforce while keeping these processing plants up and going,” Reynolds said last Friday.

CNN reached out to Reynolds’ office for comment but did not immediately hear back.

The damage is done

Demands for the plant’s closure came from officials in Black Hawk County and across the state for days before the shutdown. Eighteen local and state elected officials, including mayors, state representatives and state senators, wrote a letter to Tyson Foods on Thursday asking it to voluntarily close down the plant.

The Black Hawk County Board of Health passed a proclamation Tuesday urging Reynolds and Tyson Foods to temporarily close the plant to allow for a deep cleaning and so that all of its employees could be tested.

Mayor Hart noted Wednesday the plant employs a diverse workforce, and many don’t have the luxury of working from home. He also suggests the damage is already done.

“So many people from different walks of life, and immigrants that provide the critical service to help prepare food for the entire country,” Hart said.

He said he felt as though his pleas for action had fallen on deaf ears. “This is not a political issue. It’s not a Republican. It’s not a Democrat. This is a humanitarian issue and we needed proactive steps to be able to squash this threat.”