How would you feel if your boss had a betting pool on how many workers would contract COVID-19?

We’re seeing plenty of instances of how the coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best and the worst of us, and here’s another bellringer example of the latter: Last year, seven managers at a Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were fired in the wake of accusations that they created a betting pool on how many of their employees would contract COVID-19. As reported by Sarah Al-Arshani for Business Insider (link here):

Tyson Foods fired seven management employees at a Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant following an independent investigation into allegations that managers bet money on how many workers would catch the virus during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

…The accusations came about after the discovery of an amended court document in the wrongful death lawsuit of Isidro Fernandez, a Tyson meatpacking worker who died of COVID-19 in April.

One of the fired managers defended the betting pool as a “morale boost” for exhausted managers, as reported by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press (link here):

Don Merschbrock, a former night manager at the plant in Waterloo, Iowa, said he was speaking in an attempt to show that the seven fired supervisors are “not the evil people” that Tyson has portrayed.

…The office pool involved roughly $50 cash, which went to the winner who picked the correct percentage of workers testing positive for the virus, Merschbrock said. He added that those involved didn’t believe the pool violated company policy and thought the plant’s positivity rate would be lower than the community rate due to their mitigation efforts.

“It was a group of exhausted supervisors that had worked so hard and so smart to solve many unsolvable problems,” Merschbrock said. “It was simply something fun, kind of a morale boost for having put forth an incredible effort. There was never any malicious intent. It was never meant to disparage anyone.”

The wrongful death lawsuit that outed the betting pool account alleges that Tyson managers had downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and covered up a COVID-19 outbreak so that workers would continue to report for their shifts. As further reported by Sarah Al-Arshani:

According to the lawsuit, some managers were demanding that sick employees come into work, and one employee, who vomited on the production line, was made to return to work the following day. 

The lawsuit also alleged that managers gave out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who worked all of their scheduled shifts for three months, and warned workers not to discuss COVID-19 while at work. 

Of course, the most serious concerns pertain to the actual health and safety of the workers, and it appears the Tyson has a lot to answer for on those points. The allegations reflect narratives as old as the history of wage labor: Pressuring workers to produce under unhealthy and life threatening conditions. They remind us of the muckraking work of journalist Upton Sinclair in the early 1900s, when he exposed horrific working conditions in the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle.

In addition, the betting pool reveals another level of disturbing management dehumanization of its own employees, one that goes beyond the immediate pressures of keeping production going under trying circumstances. To describe the bets as “something fun, kind of a morale boost,” while denying any malicious intent, simply doesn’t add up. It’s quite sick and twisted, and it doesn’t reflect well upon Tyson’s practices for hiring managers.

***

Hat-tip to Alayna Cohen for originally flagging this story for me.

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