Families of Meatpacking Plant Workers Sue For Death Benefits

Liz Carey

Waterloo, IOWA (WorkersCompensation.com) – The families of three meat processing plant workers who died of Covid-19 are suing the Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa where they worked for failing to protect its workers.

The lawsuit was filed in Black Hawk County district court on behalf of employees Sedika Buljic, 58, who died on April 18; Reberiano Garcia, 60, who died on April 23; and Jose Ayala, Jr., 44, who died on May 25.

According to the suit, the families allege Tyson officials failed to implement adequate workplace safety measures. The company, the suit said, failed to institute social distancing, and that it was not until early April that it set up temperature checks. However, the suit said, sick employees can avoid detection by taking fever reducing drugs.

The lawsuit also alleges that supervisors encouraged sick or symptomatic workers to continue working and that symptomatic workers were not sent home, even though management assured others that sick workers would be asked to self-isolate. Workers were told that absent coworkers were sick with the flu and that they were not to talk about Covid-19 at work, the suit said.

In fact, the suit said, employees were incentivized to come to work via a $500 “thank you” bonus for workers who showed up for every scheduled shift over a three month period.

“Tyson intended by these false representations to deceive workers in the Waterloo facility… and to induce them to continue working despite the uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak at the plant and the health risks associated with working,” the lawsuit said.

The suit also alleges that the Waterloo facility allowed workers and subcontractors from an Iowa plant that had been closed due to the virus to work at the Waterloo plant. Tyson has previously denied this claim.

Tyson reported 1,000 cases of Covid-19 linked to the Waterloo plant, where five employees died of the disease.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the plant said the company was saddened by the deaths of its workers, and that the company’s “top priority is the health and safety of its workers.” The spokesman said the company’s safety practices meet federal standards. However, current federal standards for meat packing facilities are recommendations and not mandatory.

In April, the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the plant. In later reports, it said that it found no violations. Following that inspection, the plant closed for two days before re-opening with new safety measures in place, according to MarketWatch.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published “interim guidelines” for meatpacking plants in April that “advises that critical infrastructure workers may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic, have not had a positive test result for COVID-19, and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community. All meat and poultry processing facilities developing plans for continuing operations in the setting of COVID-19 occurring among workers or in the surrounding community should (1) work directly with appropriate state and local public health officials and occupational safety and health professionals; (2) incorporate relevant aspects of CDC guidance, including but not limited to this document and the CDC’s Critical Infrastructure Guidance; and (3) incorporate guidance from other authoritative sources or regulatory bodies as needed.”

In its guidance, the CDC said that while workers are not exposed to the coronavirus through the meat they process, they may be exposed because of their prolonged contact with other workers in close proximity to one another.

The guidance included plants installing physical barriers between workers to reduce contact, increasing the amount of clock-in/clock-out stations to eliminate crowding, providing more hand washing stations and educating employees on what to look out for and whom to contact if the worker suspects they or a co-worker are infected.

The lawsuit seeks damages for pain and suffering, as well as loss of income, and seeks punitive damages to punish the meat processing company for “Incorrigible, willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety.”

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