As of mid-November, viral outbreaks in the meatpacking industry have resulted in almost 50,000 COVID-19 cases and over 250 deaths. This tragic and unnecessary toll stems from the attack on meatpacking unions (which weakened worker power in the plants), the collapse of (or failure to enforce) state and local safety standards, the calculated negligence of employers, and the appalling deference of state and federal officials to the industry. The inescapable conclusion: Packing companies were willing to gamble with workers’ lives to keep the line running.
Well, that willingness to roll the dice is no longer just a useful metaphor. A new lawsuit filed against Tyson Foods in Waterloo, Iowa charges that a meatpacking plant manager organized a “cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers” on how many workers at the northern Iowa facility would test positive for coronavirus. (Tyson has denied the allegations, although the supervisors in question have been suspended.)
Tyson’s COVID lottery lays bare the shocking contempt that bosses at the Waterloo plant and throughout the industry have toward meatpacking workers. The lawsuit (which Tyson is trying to have heard in federal court on the grounds that President Trump’s April executive order ordering the packing plants to stay open forced their hand) also details the company’s failure to provide any meaningful social distancing or protective equipment, directives to visibly-ill line workers and supervisors to stay on the job, and even incentives (a $500 “thank you bonus”) for workers who turned up for shifts whether they were sick or healthy.
The U.S. workplace is a tyrannical place, and Tyson bosses have wielded their power in unusually callous and — if these allegations are true — even sadistic ways. But such behavior thrives in part because it is abetted by public policies that neglect to check that that tyranny in any meaningful way.
The suit against Tyson dovetails with a complaint, filed this week by the Iowa ACLU and others, which argues that the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has abdicated its responsibility to protect Iowa workers.
Like many states, Iowa operates its own OSHA plan. The state plan is largely funded by federal dollars and is required to operate “at least as effectively” as the federal program. But as the ACLU complaint details, it has been an exercise in indifference.
Iowa OSHA conducts no “strategic enforcement” of health and safety law, simply fielding complaints. And that is about the end of it. Of nearly 150 COVID-19 related complaints filed between February and October, Iowa OSHA investigated only five — closing the rest without a second look. As of early October, despite the viral outbreaks in Iowa meatpacking, the industry had received no safety citations (for violations of workplace safety standards), and just one recordkeeping violation — resulting in a paltry $957 fine for an Iowa Premium Beef plant that sickened 338 of its 850 workers and then lied about it to local public health officials.
The pattern and process of handling complaints neatly captures Iowa OSHA’s priorities. For workers, the complaint process is a textbook example of administrative burden, in which access to basic social protections or services is discouraged by unnecessarily onerous or complicated filing procedures. In 2020, Iowa OSHA’s complaint form is an English-only PDF that must be downloaded, filled in, and mailed back to OSHA.
For employers, in 97 percent of cases, the complaint process looks like this: Iowa OSHA notifies you of the complaint, by phone, and then with a follow-up letter that reads in part: “Our office has received a complaint concerning possible safety and/or health hazards at your worksite. … We have not determined whether the hazards, as alleged, exist at your workplace; and we are not conducting an investigation at this time. However, since allegations of violations have been made, you should investigate … and make any necessary corrections or modifications … and advise in writing of your findings and the action you have taken.”
Rough translation: One of your workers complained. We don’t believe them and are not going to do anything about it. If you want to pretend to do something about and send us a picture of what you did, you can.
The closing pages of the ACLU complaint bring us back to the Tyson plant in Waterloo. While managers, steering well clear of the plant floor, placed their bets on COVID cases among workers, there was little evident effort to keep those number down. “Some people are wearing homemade masks, some people are wearing bandanas, and some people aren’t wearing anything,” as the Black Hawk County Sheriff observed during a plant visit in April — adding that Tyson “felt like they were doing a good job, and we walked out of their thinking. ‘Oh my goodness, if this is the bare minimum, this isn’t enough.’”
Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for Common Good Iowa. He is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and is author of the State of Working Iowa series at CGI and formerly the Iowa Policy Project.
This piece also appeared in Jacobin magazine.