Tyson asks U.S. Supreme Court to shield it from COVID-19 lawsuits in state courts

Tyson workers separated by plastic dividers on the production line. (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats)

Faced with court rulings that say a Trump administration directive doesn’t protect Tyson Foods from liability caused by workers’ deaths due to COVID-19, the food giant is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter.

Arguing that recent court rulings against the company will have “drastic consequences for the next national emergency,” Tyson has told the nation’s high court that private companies “will not be so eager to willingly aid the federal government in a crisis” if those rulings are allowed to stand.

A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which echoed a decision last year by the Eighth Circuit appeals court, found the Trump administration’s March 2020 efforts to keep meatpacking plants open during the pandemic don’t shield the company from lawsuits alleging negligence.

Tyson works to move workers’ lawsuits to federal court

Those and other court decisions have paved the way for workers’ lawsuits against Tyson to be heard by state courts in Iowa, Texas and elsewhere, despite the company’s efforts to move the cases to federal court.

Court filings suggest that Tyson believes its argument that it was only doing business under the direction of the federal government will prove to be a more effective defense in federal court than in state court.

Trump’s March 2020 directive stated the Secretary of Agriculture had to “take all appropriate action” to ensure that the nation’s meat and poultry processors continued operations during the pandemic, but the companies had to operate in a manner that was consistent with guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The directive stopped short of ordering the plants to remain open. Read more

U.S. Supreme Court hands technical, but potentially important victory to fast-food worker in wage lawsuit

On Monday May 23, the U.S. Supreme Court handed a technical, but potentially important, victory to workers who sue their employers.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed a small, but potentially significant, victory to a fast-food worker from Iowa.

The court did not address the basic premise of Robyn Morgan’s lawsuit – that the Taco Bell restaurant she worked for had violated wage-and-hour laws. The court did, however, address a procedural issue that could have major implications for U.S. workers whose employers insist on arbitration to settle disputes that would otherwise be heard in court.

Beginning sometime around 2015, Morgan worked as an hourly employee for a Taco Bell restaurant in Osceola, which was owned by a franchise called Sundance. When applying for the job, Morgan signed an agreement to arbitrate any employment dispute.

In 2018, she filed a nationwide collective action case — a procedure for litigating a multi-plaintiff wage dispute, similar in nature to a class-action lawsuit — against Sundance. She alleged the company violated federal laws regarding overtime by moving some workers’ hours into other pay periods as a way of preventing the employees from being paid for more than 40 hours in any given week.

Sundance initially defended its actions in court, as if no arbitration agreement was in place. But after eight months of litigation, Sundance filed a motion to compel arbitration in the matter.

Morgan’s attorneys opposed the motion, arguing that Sundance had waived its right to arbitrate by litigating for so long. A district court judge agreed and denied Sundance’s motion. The company appealed, and the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court ruling in a split decision.

The appeals court ruled that a party waives its right to arbitration only after three criteria are met: the party knew of the right; then acted inconsistently with that right; and then prejudiced the opposing party through those inconsistent actions.

That third element, requiring the opposing party to be prejudiced or placed at a disadvantage, is not written into the law, but nine circuits had previously found that the Federal Arbitration Act demonstrates a “strong federal policy favoring arbitration” which demands such a showing of prejudice to prove that the right to arbitrate has been waived.

The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals was essentially saying that because Morgan failed to show that her claim was prejudiced, or damaged, by Sundance waiting so long to cite the arbitration agreement as a defense, Sundance had not waived its right to insist upon arbitration.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled otherwise. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan stated there is no such requirement to show prejudice to prove that the right to arbitration has been waived. Read more

Lawsuit: Tyson managers bet money on how many workers would contract COVID-19

Tyson workers have had plastic dividers separating them on the production line. (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats)

A wrongful death lawsuit tied to COVID-19 infections in a Waterloo, Iowa pork processing plant alleges that during the initial stages of the pandemic, Tyson Foods ordered employees to report for work while supervisors privately wagered money on the number of workers who would be sickened by the deadly virus.

Earlier this year, the family of the late Isidro Fernandez sued the meatpacking company, alleging Fernandez was exposed to the coronavirus at the Waterloo plant where he worked. The lawsuit alleges Tyson Foods is guilty of a “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety.”

In a written statement issued late Wednesday, Tyson said it was “saddened by the loss of any Tyson team member and sympathize with their families.” The company said it would not comment on specific allegations within the lawsuit but that its “top priority is the health and safety of our workers and we’ve implemented a host of protective measures at Waterloo and our other facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COCVID-19.”

Fernandez, who died on April 20, was one of at least five Waterloo plant employees who died of the virus. According to the Black Hawk County Health Department, more than 1,000 workers at the plant — over a third of the facility’s workforce — contracted the virus.

The lawsuit alleges that despite the uncontrolled spread of the virus at the plant, Tyson required its employees to work long hours in cramped conditions without providing the appropriate personal protective equipment and without ensuring workplace-safety measures were followed.

The lawsuit was recently amended and includes a number of new allegations against the company and plant officials. Among them:

  • In mid-April, around the time Black Hawk County Sherriff Tony Thompson visited the plant and reported the working conditions there “shook [him] to the core,” plant manager Tom Hart organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19.
  • John Casey, an upper-level manager at the plant, is alleged to have explicitly directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19, telling them to show up to work even if they were exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Casey reportedly referred to COVID-19 as the “glorified flu” and told workers not to worry about it because “it’s not a big deal” and “everyone is going to get it.” On one occasion, Casey intercepted a sick supervisor who was on his way to be tested and ordered him to get back to work, saying, “We all have symptoms — you have a job to do.” After one employee vomited on the production line, managers reportedly allowed the man to continue working and then return to work the next day. Read more