By Amie Rivers, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
WATERLOO — Tyson Fresh Meats officials Thursday disputed criticism from employees and others about working conditions inside their Waterloo plant, the same day Gov. Kim Reynolds said health officials suspect a coronavirus outbreak there and sent hundreds of test kits.
Meatpacking plants have come under scrutiny from workers — many of them minorities and immigrants — and advocates who say the close working conditions have put them at high risk for the contagious virus, and that company leaders have been too slow to take precautions.
Scores of workers tested positive — and two have died — at a now idled Tyson plant in Columbus Junction.
This week, the Iowa Premium beef plant in Tama was temporarily closed after an outbreak.
Thursday, attention also focused on the Waterloo plant. Reynolds announced 1,500 virus test kits were headed to Black Hawk County to help with a “suspected outbreak” at the plant.
The governor said health officials were reaching out to all meatpacking plants in Iowa, which she said were vital to maintaining the nation’s food supply chain.
Liz Croston, a Tyson spokeswoman, said there have been “several inaccuracies” with accounts from employees and advocates over how the operation was being run.
They have asserted — wrongly, Croston said — that workers from the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction were being moved to the Waterloo plant with no quarantine period in between.
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“We’re not moving team members between plants, so that’s inaccurate,” Croston said.
She wasn’t sure if, after an appropriate quarantine period, some workers would be able move to other plants to help with higher demand, noting she would check with her company’s human resources department.
Croston also disputed a contention from workers there wasn’t adequate hand sanitizer in the facility or that social distancing guidelines weren’t being followed.
Where social distancing wasn’t possible, she said, barriers were being erected. “We’re installing work station dividers where we can and providing more break room space,” she said.
She said employees’ temperatures were taken before they entered the facility, and if any employee registered a fever of 100.4 or higher, they were “not allowed in the facility, and we send them home.”
“We absolutely are working closely with our health departments in all of our communities on this, and following (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance,” Croston said.
She noted information on the plant’s safety procedures was being provided in “several languages,” the company’s absentee policy was “relaxed” and those who had questions or concerns were encouraged to have a face-to-face conversation with their supervisor or manager.
“This is a challenging time, and they’re feeling anxious,” Croston acknowledged. “We believe information is the best tool for fighting this virus. We also encouraging them to tell us what they’re seeing.”
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Those reassurances didn’t match what immigrant and refugee organizations across Iowa have been hearing from workers in recent days, said Erica Johnson with American Friends Service Committee of Iowa.
“People were afraid to work. They were almost being gaslighted by management,” Johnson said. “The information that is coming out is not what we’re hearing. (Workers are) actually afraid, and they need somebody to stand up and take proactive measures.”
Johnson said more than 77 organizations across the state have signed on to a #ProtectIowaWorkers statement being sent to Reynolds, “demanding they take immediate steps to protect Iowa’s workers from COVID-19,” she said in a Wednesday call with reporters.
Employees at these plants “are proud of what they do,” said Rafael Morataya, director of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. “But they are not willing to risk their lives for these jobs.”
More testing could go a long way toward lifting the veil of secrecy, activists say, and help workers on the front lines.
“It is the working class that keeps this state running and keeps America running, and it is the working class that will save this nation again,” said Charlie Wishman, secretary and treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “Workers may be essential, but they are never, ever expendable.”