More than three months after the COVID-19 outbreak at Tyson’s Waterloo plant, which resulted in over 1,000 employee infections and several deaths, major concerns about employee health and safety persist.
From Tyson’s perspective, they are demonstrating that employee health and safety is their top priority. They passed an OSHA inspection with no violations. They have implemented protective measures that comply with—or surpass—CDC recommendations for COVID-19 prevention. And they’ve implemented their own testing regime, which they say has found less than one percent of their U.S. workforce infected with the virus.
But not everyone shares Tyson’s perspective.
Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, who has worked in health care for 31 years, was shocked by the OSHA results. That, coupled with continued complaints from workers about the protective measures in place, prompted her, along with Rep. Ras Smith and Senator Bill Dotzler, to write OSHA’s regional office to request a second inspection.
The letter states, “Iowa OSHA’s proven failure to properly implement the OSHA act of 1972 during the COVID pandemic will result in large numbers of workers exposed to unneeded suffering and even death.”
“I haven’t heard back from Kim [Kim Stille, Regional Administrator for Region VII OSHA],” said Brown-Powers, “but I received a lengthy letter from Tyson, so I know OSHA reached out to them.”
In their response, Tyson emphasized their continuous testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic employees and an increase in the number of health staff.
“I’m encouraged that Tyson is aware that we are keeping a watch on our plant and they’re going to improve some things,” said Brown-Powers. “But I’m concerned about follow-through.”
The Iowa Council for Worker Safety, a community coalition comprised of 15 different organizations, is not convinced that Tyson’s top priority is employee health and safety. The Council, which issued an online “Pay Workers for COVID-19 Leave Now!” petition in mid-July, is still awaiting a copy of Tyson’s sick pay and sick leave policies. They’d requested a copy weeks ago.
According to Nilvia Reyes Rodriguez, Vice President of DREAM Iowa—one of the organizations included in the Council—the sick pay application process, as well as who gets approved and who gets denied, is still confusing. Additionally, it isn’t easily accessible for employees. “If they go to HR and make a request,” she said, “they can see it.”
One of the barriers to understanding Tyson’s COVID-19 health, safety, and protective measures is finding employees willing to discuss them. Though some employees are voicing their complaints to community leaders they trust, the Council feels that many are afraid to step forward.
Reyes Rodriguez stated that the Council is trying to survey workers.
“They [employees] can send a message on our Facebook page and they will be put in contact with an individual who can do a survey,” she explained.
Respondents are constantly reassured that the survey is completely anonymous.
“If Tyson was being transparent,” says Reyes Rodriguez, “then employees shouldn’t have a problem speaking to us. We are not the media. If they weren’t trying to hide anything, employees should be okay discussing issues with us.”
Brown-Powers also wants Tyson to be transparent, which is why she requested a tour of Tyson’s Waterloo facility. The human resources director contacted her personally, saying, “We would love you to come visit.” Brown-Powers is just waiting for the date.
“I believe we will have to keep an eye out on the plant,” Brown-Powers said. “This is part of our job now as state representatives, to be sure that our community is safe, be it Tyson or schools. Because we have to represent those folks and speak on their behalf. And we know that the folks at the meat packing plant don’t get their voices heard and that’s just not an option for us in Waterloo. We have a strong legislative team here, so that’s not going to fly.”
by Rachelle Chase
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