Seven Tyson managers were fired earlier this month for betting on how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.
One of the managers at the Waterloo, Iowa, plant told The Associated Press that the pool was an attempt to boost morale among exhausted supervisors.
More than 1,000 workers at the plant have tested positive at least six have died.
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Several Tyson Foods supervisors were fired earlier this year after reports emerged they had bet on how many of their Iowa employees would test positive for the coronavirus.
This week, one of the fired managers told the Associated Press that the office pool was an attempt to boost morale.
Don Merschbrock, a former night manager at the Waterloo, Iowa, plant told the AP that he and the other supervisors aren’t “evil.”
“We really want to clear our names,” he told the wire service. “We actually worked very hard and took care of our team members well.”
The Black Hawk County Health Department, which oversees the Waterloo plant, announced in May that about a third of all workers at the plant, or more than 1,000 people, had either tested positive for COVID-19 or had antibodies.
By that time more than 20 meat plant workers around the US had died from the coronavirus.
Read more: Tyson taps new CEO and plans to hire nearly 200 nurses, after at least 10,261 Tyson workers catch COVID-19 – more than any other meat processing company
The accusations of the COVID-19 pool at the Waterloo plant came to light in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Isidro Fernandez, a Tyson meatpacking worker who died of COVID-19 in April.
In the court documents, which were viewed by Insider, the family says that Tyson failed to keep workers safe by allowing sick and exposed workers to come in and telling the public that the plant was safe.
The suit also exposes the office pool.
“Defendant Tom Hart, the Plant Manager of the Waterloo Facility, organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19,” the suit says.
The supervisors were initially suspended after the pool was exposed, but fired on December 16.
“The behaviors exhibited by these individuals do not represent the Tyson core values, which is why we took immediate and appropriate action to get to the truth. Now that the investigation has concluded, we are taking action based on the findings,” Tyson Foods President & CEO Dean Banks said in a statement.
Merschbrock was not named in the suit, but told the AP that managers were given the “impossible task” of keeping the plant running while also implementing safety measures.
He said the pool involved $50 and the winner would be someone who correctly picked the COVID-19 positivity rate, the AP reported.
Those involved thought the rate would be lower than the rest of the community because of their safety efforts.
“It was a group of exhausted supervisors that had worked so hard and so smart to solve many unsolvable problems,” Merschbrock told the AP. “It was simply something fun, kind of a morale boost for having put forth an incredible effort. There was never any malicious intent. It was never meant to disparage anyone.”
Meat plant workers and union reps around the US told Insider earlier this year that workplace policies that reinforce a work-while-sick culture left these vulnerable employees as sitting ducks during the pandemic.
Often without paid sick leave, these workers who stand elbow to elbow in unsanitary conditions rarely call out when they’re experiencing flu-like symptoms.
Even during the pandemic, bonuses given to employees who don’t take days off also incentivize going to work sick, employees told Insider.
Mel Orchard, an attorney representing families of employees who died from COVID-19, told the AP that it was possible to protect meat plant workers.
The corporate culture treated the workers as expendable, he said.
“Listening to the stories of those who lost a father, brother or wife, I have a hard time having sympathy for the managers who worked extra hours and were tired,” he told the AP. “But I do understand why and how this could have happened.”
Tyson didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
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