Fired Tyson manager defends COVID-19 bets as morale booster

One of seven Tyson Foods managers fired for betting on how many workers would test positive for COVID-19 at an Iowa pork plant is defending the office pool as spontaneous fun that was meant to boost morale.

Don Merschbrock, a former night manager at the pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, said he was speaking out in an attempt to show he and his six former colleagues are “not the evil people” that Tyson has portrayed.

“We really want to clear our names,” he told The Associated Press. “We actually worked very hard and took care of our team members well.” Mershbrock and six other managers were fired by Tyson nearly two weeks ago. 

Tyson announced the terminations of the Waterloo managers on December 16, weeks after the betting claims surfaced in wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of four workers who died of COVID-19.

The Springdale, Arkansas-based company said an investigation led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder found sufficient evidence to terminate those involved, calling their actions in violation of Tyson’s values. The company had asked Holder’s law firm to conduct its probe as a public backlash threatened to damage its brand and demoralize its workers.

Tyson, one of the world’s largest meat producers, did not release Holder’s findings, and fired managers have complained that they were given no explanation.

Merschbrock released a statement and spoke to reporters, explaining that he was freer to speak as he isn’t named as a defendant in the lawsuits.

He said managers conducted the office pool last spring within minutes following mass testing of the plant’s roughly 2,800 workers.

County officials said last May that more than 1,000 workers tested positive for the virus, which hospitalized several and killed at least six. They criticized Tyson for not initially providing workers adequate protective gear and for idling the plant only after the outbreak had torn through the area.

Lawyers for the estates of four dead workers cast the office betting pool as illustrating Tyson’s disregard for the health and safety of its workers. They’re alleging plant managers downplayed the severity of the virus, and at times let or encouraged workers to show up even when sick.

One suit filed earlier this month accused the company of discouraging interpreters from discussing the virus, other than to falsely claim that it was not a problem at the facility. A Tyson spokesperson declined to comment on that suit at the time.

Tyson has said the plant — its largest for pork and able to process 20,000 hogs daily — was designated as critical infrastructure by the federal government in March, and that its leaders worked to “safely continue operations to secure the national food supply.”

U.S. District Judge Linda Reade on Monday ordered the wrongful death lawsuits back to Iowa state court, rejecting the company’s request to change the jurisdiction. She said Tyson failed to show it was acting under the direction of federal authorities.

“No federal officer directed Tyson to keep its Waterloo facility open in a negligent manner … or make fraudulent misrepresentations to employees at the Waterloo facility regarding the risks or severity of the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 outbreak at the Waterloo facility,” she wrote.

Merschbrock, who had been with Tyson for a decade, said managers were given the “impossible task” of maintaining production while implementing virus safety precautions. They had been working 12-hour days, six or seven days a week, he said.

The office pool involved roughly $50 cash, which went to the person who picked the right percentage of workers who’d test positive for the deadly virus, according to Merschbrock. Those who took part didn’t believe it violated company policy and also believed 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.”

A Tyson spokesman declined to comment on Merschbrock’s assertions.

Mel Orchard, a lawyer representing families of deceased workers, told the AP that Tyson’s corporate culture prioritized production and sales over the health of its workers.

“Listening to the stories of those who lost a father, brother or wife, I have a hard time having sympathy for the managers who worked extra hours and were tired,” he told the wire service. “But I do understand why and how this could have happened.”

Orchard represents the estates of Sedika Buljic, 58; Reberiano Garcia, 60; Jose Ayala Jr., 44; and Isidro Fernandez, age unknown. Buljic, Garcia and Fernandez died in April, and Ayala on May 25 after a six-week hospitalization.