Major COVID-19 outbreak at Wallula plant is ‘unacceptable,’ says U.S. senator
WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 28, 2020) — U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate health and labor committee, ripped Tyson Foods over the company’s delayed response to the major COVID-19 outbreak among employees at its Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Wallula. Now that the plant is temporarily closed to test all workers, she urged the company to prioritize worker safety, ensure that they receive full pay and benefits during the closure, and heed public health officials’ advice regarding when and how to reopen the plant.
The Tri-City Herald reports today that the outbreak at the Tyson plant south of Pasco is now blamed for 124 COVID-19 cases, including a worker living in the Tri-Cities who died April 20 from complications of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“According to reports, more than 100 employees at the Wallula plant have tested positive for COVID-19. That is unacceptable,” Murray wrote in a letter sent Monday to Tyson CEO Noel White. “Unfortunately, the full scope of the impact of Tyson’s negligence in Wallula will be unknown until the testing of the remainder of the employees is completed this week.”
“Ensuring protections for frontline workers – especially those working in our food supply chain — is not just a matter of life-and-death for the workers themselves, but is also vital to ensuring these workplaces are not hotbeds of infection for their families, the surrounding communities, and consumers,” Murray wrote.
Guadalupe Olivera, 60, a butcher at the Tyson plant in Wallula, died April 20 after spending 10 days in intensive care at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, without his wife and seven children by his side. He developed symptoms in late March but with few testing supplies for COVID-19 available in the Tri-Cities, he was not tested for the virus until April.
The Tyson plant in Wallula was officially closed on April 23, despite Tyson being aware of 34 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as early as April 13. The company said it will announce plans for reopening after seeing the results of employee testing, which should come later this week.
Prior to the closure of the plant, Murray says she heard from her constituents and from community representatives that the lack of personal protective equipment and inadequate guidance from Tyson to the employees was putting workers’ lives at risk
“The more than 1,400 employees in Wallula, the countless members of the surrounding communities, and the millions of Tyson’s consumers deserve a swifter and more comprehensive response to the COVID-19 outbreak than what they have experienced thus far,” Murray wrote.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday that he will “insist” that companies facing lawsuits for their failures responding to the COVID-19 pandemic be granted limited liability as a condition for allowing desperately needed federal aid to state and local governments.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that corporate interests are pushing Congress to limit their legal liability. A family of a Walmart worker who died of complications from COVID-19 has sued the company, accusing managers of a Chicago-area store of not doing enough to protect its workers. The American Federation of Government Employees has alleged in a class action suit that the federal government had not offered enough protective equipment. And the grocery industry, the Inquirer report suggests, is similarly a ripe target for lawsuits as it confronts pressure from unions like UFCW, which says that 30 grocery workers have died from COVID-19.
Amazon, the nation’s largest online company, is facing rising unrest among its workers and pressure from an organized coalition of labor-backed groups to better protect its workforce.
PREVIOUSLY at The Stand (April 23) — The union difference: A tale of two plants — Teamsters at the Lamb Weston potato plant in Pasco have workplace safety and respect on the job. Nonunion workers at the Tyson beef plant down the road have Washington’s biggest COVID-19 hotspot with more than 100 confirmed cases linked to the plant. Tragically, one of the infected employees, 60-year-old J. Guadalupe Olivera Mendoza, has died. The plant finally announced late last week that they would temporarily close pending COVID-19 testing for all employees, but still plan to reopen in days.