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Tyson Cannot Blame Executive Order for Employee’s Death, Federal Judge Rules

The meat packing company claims it was following federal guidelines throughout the pandemic, but the timeline doesn’t add up

A billboard with the text: “Thank you to community essential workers. We’re all in this together.” from Tyson Foods
A Tyson Foods billboard thanking essential workers, displayed in Logansport, Indiana, on April 28, 2020.
Photo: Lost Shoe Studios/Shutterstock

Tyson Foods can’t hide behind an executive order that kept meatpacking plants open in April when it comes to denying liability for a worker’s death, a federal judge ruled last week, ordering that a case be returned to state court.

The lawsuit was filed in August by the family by Isidro Fernandez, a worker at Tyson’s pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Fernandez died on April 26 after contracting the coronavirus, which spread rapidly throughout the close quarters of meatpacking plants in the spring. The lawsuit claims that management at the Waterloo plant referred to COVID-19 as the “glorified flu,” offered bonuses to incentivize sick workers to keep turning up for shifts, and maintained dangerous working conditions without proper protections. The suit also alleged that supervisors had a betting pool on how many workers would contract COVID-19; seven managers were later fired, following the meat processing company’s investigation into these allegations.

More than 1,000 Tyson workers tested positive for COVID-19 in the spring, and five died.

In requesting that the Fernandez case be moved from state to federal court, Tyson claimed that by staying open in April, the company was following the instructions of federal officials such as President Donald Trump, who signed an executive order that declared meat production facilities essential infrastructure and pushed them to remain open.

But the federal judge, Linda Reade of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, rejected those claims, writing that the timing didn’t add up, the Des Moines Register reports. Trump’s order wasn’t signed until April 28, two days after Fernandez had already died. Furthermore, per Reade, even if the executive order had been in effect by the time of Fernandez’s illness and death, that didn’t protect them from claims that they had operated negligently and dishonestly when it came to the coronavirus outbreak.

“No federal officer directed Tyson to keep its Waterloo facility open in a negligent manner (failing to provide employees with personal protective equipment, failing to implement adequate social distancing measures, failing to implement adequate safety measures related to the coronavirus) or make fraudulent misrepresentations to employees at the Waterloo facility,” Reade wrote.

Tyson is appealing the order, Talk Business & Politics reports.

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