Meatpacking was once a path to the middle class in Waterloo, where workers led the fight for civil rights. But by the time the pandemic hit, a transformed industry had assembled a workforce from the most vulnerable parts of the world. The stage had been set.
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The coronavirus crept through Waterloo, Iowa, quietly at first.
In an apartment on the west side of town, a Karenni refugee from Myanmar woke up one morning in April gasping for air. His wife tried to help, but the man, who butchered hog carcasses for a living, was suddenly too weak to get out of bed.
A few miles away, Congolese immigrants, short of breath and struggling with coughing fits, cocooned themselves in blankets and leaned over steaming pots of lemon, ginger and garlic.
Outside the weather was getting warmer, but the streets were eerily empty, almost like when the ocean pulls out all the water before pounding a wave onto the shore. In the lull, Dr. Sharon Duclos, the co-medical director of the Peoples Community Health Clinic, waited anxiously, hoping that the deadly new virus would somehow spare her city.
Then it hit. Overnight, the number of cases in urgent care doubled, then tripled and quadrupled. The clinic’s interpreters, fielding calls in multiple languages, couldn’t keep up. Unable to get through, families drove to the clinic, lining up on the sidewalk as the smell of fast food drifted from the Hardee’s next door.
As the staff tended to the sick, a chilling pattern emerged: 99% of the patients either worked at the local Tyson Foods meatpacking plant or lived with someone who did. Some patients said they’d come from a town two hours away where an outbreak had shut down another Tyson plant.
The virus was consuming families before Duclos’ eyes, jumping from workers to their parents to siblings to children.
“You start seeing the emergency room reports,” she said. “Oh my God, there went his father. Now he’s in the hospital. He’s on a vent. And you just realize, it’s just a matter of time, I’m going to get an ER report on his mom. And sure enough, boom, there it is.”
Across town, the MercyOne medical system set up a makeshift clinic in an old nursing home. Tyson employees arrived in a feverish daze, muscles failing, struggling to breathe. Three workers collapsed on the sidewalk outside the clinic. On a wooden shelf next to the front door, staff lined up the car keys, left by patients who’d driven to the clinic only to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance.
As cases multiplied, local officials like Ras Smith, an education consultant who represents Waterloo’s historically Black east side in the state Legislature, took calls from workers, frantic and fearful, about the conditions at the sprawling pork plant:
A coworker vomited on the line and management let him continue to work. … There are eight people working in front of me and another 10 or more behind me. … I am scared I will die because of work, but I need to work to buy food for my family.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit would later allege, top Tyson managers in Waterloo were directing interpreters to downplay the threat of infection at the plant, while privately making winner-take-all bets on how many workers would test positive. (Seven managers were fired last week).
With the scale of the crisis growing, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, who heads the county’s emergency management commission, joined with other local officials to urge Tyson to close the plant.
But they were rebuffed, not only by Tyson — whose CEO would publicly blame communities like Waterloo for bringing the virus into its plants — but by Gov. Kim Reynolds, who resisted virus restrictions and blocked local officials from shutting businesses themselves.
No one, Thompson realized, was going to stand up against Tyson. They were on their own.
Perhaps no industry has attracted such widespread infamy for its handling of COVID-19 this year as the nation’s meatpackers. As the pandemic spread across the country, one plant after another became a hotbed of the virus, which exploded onto unprepared communities as companies fought to keep their plants open and the meat coming.
ProPublica first wrote about the risks facing meatpacking workers before the outbreaks occurred, then documented how the industry ignored years of warnings, blindsiding local health officials and leaving workers to serve as kindling when COVID-19 arrived.
But to understand how things got to this point — how American cities came to be held hostage to global meat corporations — there may be no better place to go than Waterloo, where the outbreak at Tyson’s pork plant took a stunning toll on both workers and the community.
The damage left behind illustrates what’s at stake as key Republicans push for granting widespread immunity to corporations, shielding them from repercussions related to COVID-19.
To date, at least 1,500 and as many as 1,800 of the 2,800 workers at the Waterloo plant have been infected with the virus, and eight have died, Thompson said, making it one of the largest — if not the largest — workplace outbreaks in the country. With contact tracing, he said, the cases tied to Tyson rise to 2,500 to 3,000.
The roots of why this small Midwestern city of about 67,000 was consumed by the virus can be found in its history. Here, over the past century, the entire arc of the meatpacking industry’s story in America, and its complicated relationship with race, have unfolded.
In Waterloo, race and labor have especially been intertwined, dating back to when Black workers from Mississippi were first recruited to the area as strikebreakers more than 100 years ago.
Some who settled in town found work in the most unsavory parts of a family-owned packinghouse. Then, perhaps surprisingly, meatpacking became a path to the middle class for thousands of Black workers from the South, and an avenue toward empowerment as their union led a historic fight for civil rights in Waterloo.
But many of those hard-won gains disappeared as the meatpacking industry evolved. A new company, which would become Tyson, reconfigured the work, slashing wages and demanding faster labor in tighter quarters. When workers across the Midwest balked, the industry turned to immigrants and refugees from some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. It was a population for whom exploitation was also an opportunity, and desperation silenced complaints.
So when the virus hit, the city was home to families from myriad cultures, each isolated by language, customs and economic uncertainty — with Tyson as the unifying factor.
Few realized how the power dynamic had shifted until the Tyson Waterloo plant became the epicenter of contagion this spring, pitting a corporation with access to the White House against a weakened workforce and a community facing deep racial disparities.
“They just worked in a plant where they were overrun with COVID-positive cases,” Thompson said. “And that’s frustrating for me because those deaths were needless, absolutely needless. That was just poor policy, poor implementation, bad defensive moves by a corporate greed kind of approach.”
Tyson declined multiple interview requests. In an email, its spokesman Gary Mickelson wrote that “navigating this pandemic has been difficult for everyone,” and that “we worked with the information available to us at the time to help keep our team members safe.”
The company would not answer most questions about what unfolded at its Waterloo plant during the pandemic and its impact on the community, citing the pending litigation. But in a court filing, the company said it’s not “plausible to assume” that workers who died from COVID-19 contracted it at work “merely because they worked at Tyson.” It also cited a new state law that it said protects it from liability for injuries related to COVID-19.
The company also appeared to assign at least some of the blame for the deadly outbreak at its plant to local officials. “It would have helped our decision-making if we had access to the county’s information sooner,” Mickelson wrote.
Thompson flatly rejected that the county had not been communicating with Tyson. “They’re trying to save face and put a PR spin on something when they’re on shifting sand,” he said, “and the problem is the community knows it.”
When the surge at the Tyson plant was over, it left holes in every part of Waterloo.
It took a Bosnian woman, whose husband called paramedics after finding her unresponsive at home, a Haitian woman who commuted over an hour each day from Cedar Rapids, a white worker in the laundry department and, days later, the Black man who lived in the same duplex and worked at another Tyson plant.
It took a Mexican father of six only months after their mother died, and a man from Laredo, Texas, who lay in a hospital for weeks as his coworker searched for his family. It took a Congolese lawyer who could only find work in the United States as a Tyson interpreter.
And as the disease spread to nursing homes and throughout the community, it took grandfathers and great-grandmothers and it sickened hundreds of people in the Black community, many of whom could trace their families back to the city’s history of meatpacking and the role it had played in the Great Migration.
The way Tyson responded, said the Rev. Abraham Funchess, executive director of the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights, reinforced the disparities that have long existed in Waterloo.
“They were more concerned about the euthanization of hogs over the lives of real-blood people in the plant,” he said. “I think it’s left a bitter, bitter taste for people in the community, especially the Black community. At the same time, it’s not a surprise.”
On the last day of March, Thompson was at the emergency operations center in Waterloo when he got the news that the county had its first case of community spread. Until then, the county’s half-dozen COVID-19 cases had been travel-related.
With a wary eye on the rest of Iowa, Thompson’s emergency management coordinator noticed an odd spike of cases a few days later in a tiny old railroad town called Columbus Junction, where a Tyson pork plant would soon close due to an outbreak.
“Their numbers had doubled overnight,” Thompson said.
At that moment, Thompson, a mild-mannered former military police officer, knew they were in a race against time. The Waterloo packinghouse, a sprawling complex amid cornfields on the city’s eastern edge, had twice as many employees as the one in Columbus Junction.
So, on April 10, Thompson drove to the Tyson plant with the county’s public health director, Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, and one of her colleagues. By that time, the county had about a dozen cases tied to it. If they could work with Tyson, maybe they could get ahead of the virus.
But what they saw shocked them.
Despite a rash of outbreaks at meatpacking plants around the country, workers were standing elbow-to-elbow and across from one another. Only about a third wore face coverings. Some had fashioned masks out of bandanas and old T-shirts. One wore a sleep mask designed to cover eyes. The country was experiencing a shortage of protective equipment, but Thompson was startled that a corporation with tens of thousands of employees working in close quarters and operations in China wasn’t better prepared.
Back in Thompson’s car, the three county officials rubbed their hands with sanitizer and stared at each other in disbelief.
Thompson turned to Cisse Egbuonye and said: “I think we’ve got a problem.”
And it was about to get much worse. Over at Peoples Clinic, Dr. Duclos noticed something strange about some of the first patients. As the staff began taking demographic information, some said they were from Columbus Junction.
Incensed, Thompson got on the phone with Tyson’s corporate office: Was the company sending workers from the shuttered plant to work in Waterloo? Tyson insisted that it wasn’t and denied that it had when asked by ProPublica. Thompson said he later discovered the workers had come from Tyson’s sanitation contractor, PSSI.
“For those workers to be authorized to work in the Waterloo plant they would have had to have been badged and carded,” Thompson said. “So Tyson knew. They were just using semantics. There was somebody coming from the infected plant out of Columbus Junction into Waterloo, potentially bringing that infection with them.”
PSSI said in a statement that the workers were based in Waterloo but had been temporarily assigned to the Columbus Junction plant. When it closed, the employees were sent home to quarantine.
But that’s not what Duclos and other health officials heard from patients.
“We were like, ‘Do you have family here?’” Duclos recalled. “And they were like, ‘No. We came up here to work at Tyson.’”
Waterloo wasn’t always a splintered city, dependent on low-wage meatpacking jobs. The slaughterhouse had once been a source of progress for a place that billed itself as the “Factory City of Iowa.”
After the world wars, a family-owned pork processor named the Rath Packing Company, located on the banks of the Cedar River, grew to have the largest packinghouse in the country, catering to consumers’ appetite for bacon, vacuum-cooked hams and canned meat. At its peak in the 1950s, Rath employed nearly 9,000 people, drawing thousands of Black workers north to Waterloo. Rath’s whistle could be heard throughout the city, signaling the start of the daily kill, the lunch hour and even the city’s nighttime curfew.
But unlike Tyson today, the workers united to challenge management, fighting for better pay and more humane work conditions. These battles spilled out of the plant and launched a local civil rights movement.
It was a bold achievement for a community that had first arrived in Waterloo from Mississippi as strikebreakers for the railroad in 1911. The case for hiring Black workers was spelled out in unabashedly racist terms in the local paper: the Black worker had “proven himself a capable workman” under the direction of whites and was far better than the “cheap foreign help” the area had depended on.
In the years that followed, hundreds of Black workers would make the journey from the South, fleeing Jim Crow laws, the boll weevil, devastating floods and racial violence. They were allowed to settle in a 16-block triangle full of saloons and gambling dens called “Smokey Row.”
There, they established churches, campaigned to rid the area of vice and started taking jobs at Rath.
The plant’s workers were eventually organized by the United Packinghouse Workers of America, whose aggressive tactics would seem out of place today. Unlike most unions, it welcomed Black workers, and while Rath wasn’t a racial utopia, the union’s logo of a white hand clasping a Black one symbolized its belief that worker solidarity wouldn’t exist without racial solidarity.
Black workers were often assigned to the dirtiest jobs in the packinghouse, including the kill floor, where men worked up to their knees in blood. But the job had unexpected benefits. It gave Black workers immense power over production — and the company’s profits. During a dispute, they could simply stop the line, threatening to let the hog carcasses rot until the company met their demands. By the mid-1960s, wages were the equivalent of $24 to $32 an hour in today’s dollars, which helped build a Black middle class. Those annual wages work out to roughly twice the per-capita income of Waterloo today.
Drawing on the might of Rath’s union, Black and white employees worked together to desegregate the town. Going from tavern to tavern, the union devised a strategy where white workers ordered food and drinks, followed by Black workers. When owners refused to serve Black people, the white workers walked out, providing witnesses to discrimination while using their joint economic power to force change.
The union handled discrimination complaints at other workplaces, too, and boycotted stores that wouldn’t hire minorities. They pressured hotels to desegregate and convinced the local newspaper to stop identifying the race of crime suspects only if they were Black.
“The union, Local 46, was the one who brought them their freedom and the equality, the fight for justice — that’s how the Blacks got their rights,” said Anna Mae Weems, 94, a former Rath bacon slicer who led the union’s civil rights efforts. “We walked in and worked in manure and walked back home. That’s where we started from. And we ended up with Blacks being on the City Council and running for state offices.”
But by the late 1960s, Rath’s business model was becoming obsolete. A new company, Iowa Beef Packers, later bought by Tyson, was transforming the industry with automated factories built like an assembly line. Rath restructured, reduced wages and laid off thousands of workers, and finally in 1985, the last truckload of meat products went out the door.
Rath’s defeat, coupled with the 1980s farm crisis, sent Waterloo into an economic tailspin that the Black community never fully recovered from. Some 35 years later, racial disparities in employment and home ownership there remain staggering, and in 2018, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area was named the worst place for Black people in America.
But the circumstances that led to Rath’s failure didn’t only create hardship for Waterloo. It also signaled the decline of worker power at meatpacking plants across the country. And by the time the pandemic hit, the history of the union’s victories would be long forgotten.
As Black Hawk County officials began to realize the scope of what was happening at Tyson, the virus was already stringing its way through a swath of Iowa around Waterloo, carried along by sick workers too afraid of losing their jobs to stay home.
On April 1, Félicie Joseph, a short Haitian immigrant with piercing eyes, called her friend Esther Pascal after her shift at the Waterloo plant. Her throat hurt and she felt lightheaded, she told Pascal in Creole, and her muscles ached as if somebody had beaten her up.
Joseph, 59, lived in an apartment that backed up to the parking lot of an abandoned bowling alley in Cedar Rapids, 55 miles southeast of Waterloo. Every morning before dawn, a network of vans made the rounds of the city’s apartment complexes, shuttling workers like Joseph to the region’s meatpacking plants.
Pascal urged her to skip her next shift and see a doctor. But Joseph said she felt pressured to work. She was supporting 10 relatives back in Haiti.
“She kept saying, ‘My boss keeps coughing and my boss still comes to work,’” Pascal said. “‘That means if I stay home, I’m gonna lose my job.’”
Her fear was widely shared. Families of other Waterloo workers would later allege in a lawsuit, which is being heard in federal court in Cedar Rapids, that a top manager had ordered supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19. In one instance, the manager intercepted a sick supervisor on his way to get tested and told him to get back to work, the suit said, telling him, “We all have symptoms — you have a job to do.”
Joseph told her friend she was taking Tylenol and would try to tough it out until the end of the week. She made it through her shifts, but on Saturday, she told her son Wilmarc in Haiti that she felt so weak after taking a shower that she barely made it to the bed.
“I asked her if I need to call somebody to come help her,” Wilmarc said by phone. “She said no, she’s gonna be fine.”
Even before the coronavirus, the job and her age had taken a toll on Joseph. One of her hands shook, and managers constantly moved her to different jobs, from cutting up hog’s heads to slicing pork bellies — anything she could do without pain, her son said. Joseph had been a street vendor in Haiti, and in 2009, she moved to Florida, where she found work in a vegetable processing plant. But in 2017, Joseph lost her job. She was going through a divorce, and was having a tough time finding work because she spoke solely Creole. A friend told her about opportunities in Iowa, and Joseph boarded a bus and was hired by Tyson.
After talking to her son, Joseph’s symptoms grew worse. She asked a friend to take her to the emergency room, where she got a COVID test and a doctor told her to quarantine, given her symptoms.
She was just one of many Tyson Waterloo workers who were struggling against the disease.
Soon health officials would find out just how bad it could get.
By mid-April, the stream of Tyson workers showing up at MercyOne’s COVID-19 clinic seemed to grow daily, even hourly. Some came straight from their shifts, sweating from extreme fevers and choking for air. Then, like a sudden storm, nearly 90 workers descended on a single day just after Easter Sunday.
Jolted by the number of cases, clinic staffer Merriam Lake snapped a photo of the lab forms spread out in front of her. Page after page had “Tyson” scrawled at the bottom. She texted it to the clinic’s weekend coordinator, Timi Brown-Powers, who is also a member of the state Legislature. “Tyson is kicking our ass,” Lake wrote.
It was around this time that the Karenni refugee who worked at Tyson woke up out of breath, unable to get out of bed. His wife took him to the hospital, where he was admitted to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator.
Nurses told his wife that he might not survive. If she wanted to say goodbye, now was the time.
The couple had grown up together in Myanmar, formerly Burma. A civil war raged, and soon after they married, soldiers approached their village, burning houses and conscripting the men. In 2005, the husband fled to Malaysia while the wife and her family hid in another village. He had no way of telling her where he was — her village had no phone — so she found work in Malaysia where she could search refugee camps for her husband.
One day she got a call from a strange number. It was her husband. He told her he was now in the United States, in a place called Iowa. It would be another five years before they reunited, but in 2016, she stepped off a plane in Waterloo and saw her husband for the first time in more than a decade.
“He was crying, and me too,” she recalled. “It was sad and happy, like a dream, you know? Like I’m just dreaming.”
Now, as COVID-19 ravaged her husband’s lungs, the woman told the nurse, “No, I don’t want to say goodbye to my husband. I know he will probably come home.”
She left the hospital. But three days later, she was back, rushed in an ambulance, vomiting and weakened by COVID-19. Five days after that, their 1-year-old daughter ended up in the emergency room too.
The virus hit the refugee community from Myanmar particularly hard, sickening many working-age adults, and taking the life of Day Reh, the 85-year-old grandfather of Ei Meh, who has family members who work at Tyson.
With cases growing at Tyson, Brown-Powers reported what she was seeing to her allies in state and local government.
She was still haunted by an older couple — both Tyson employees — who’d collapsed one right after the other as a nurse escorted them inside the clinic. And she personally knew Jim Orvis, a bearded jazz buff and science fiction aficionado, who’d barely been able to get himself to the clinic. He’d been turned away from his shift as a laundry worker at Tyson with a fever and his health had declined quickly. By the time the 65-year-old maneuvered his car into the clinic’s driveway, he was nearly suffocating from the disease. He had managed to stop the car and stumbled out before falling to the sidewalk. An ambulance took him to the hospital.
Brown-Powers was at the clinic the morning that Jim’s brother, Jeff, came to collect the car. She’d known Jeff for years. Their lives had crossed through their political work and, because Waterloo is still a smallish town, their relatives had shared a room in the same nursing home. She offered what she knew about Jim’s condition on the day he’d arrived at the clinic, though it was clear he’d been in rough shape — his car keys still dangled in the ignition.
These moments animated Brown-Powers as she contacted the governor’s office almost daily. In response, she received courteous acknowledgements of her messages but little else.
“I never felt a concern for the employee,” Brown-Powers said of the governor’s office.
Waterloo’s mayor, Quentin Hart, had also contacted the governor, telling Reynolds that if she didn’t push the plant to close temporarily, he’d hold the state responsible for any community spread or deaths in Waterloo. Reynolds called Hart but focused on providing more testing.
To local leaders, it was increasingly clear that the governor didn’t support their efforts to contain the pandemic. Though Hart, the city’s first Black mayor, had encouraged Waterloo residents to stay “safe at home,” the governor resisted issuing a statewide shelter-in-place order. While she closed bars and limited some activities, she told cities they had no authority to close businesses themselves.
The governor’s office declined multiple requests for comment.
On April 16, a group of 20 elected officials sent a letter to Tyson and the governor, calling for a temporary shutdown. The letter garnered national media attention, and Tyson responded that it was following health guidelines and working with elected officials. The governor sent 1,500 tests to the county.
And the plant kept running.
Before Tyson took over in 2001, the Waterloo slaughterhouse was one of the crown jewels of IBP, which had come to town about a decade earlier promising 1,500 jobs for the struggling city.
But IBP was a world away from Rath. Instead of sending sides of meat to butcher shops, it pioneered a new process that placed workers shoulder to shoulder as they disassembled carcasses moving down a conveyor. “We’ve tried to take the skill out of every step,” IBP’s co-founder told a reporter.
Across the Midwest, IBP had developed a reputation for running its employees hard. Workers told advocates their hands were numb at the end of the day, and if they hurt themselves, they were forced to finish their shifts. When questioned about the way it churned through workers, a former manager testified in a labor dispute that IBP “found very little correlation between turnover and profitability.”
Desperate for jobs, Waterloo approved the plant.
IBP’s starting wage was $5.80 an hour — $12 in today’s dollars — half of what Rath paid at its peak. After several years, IBP had run through the local workforce. Some quit over the low wages or working conditions, but IBP also fired workers for being late or calling in sick.
The company began looking for a new source of employees. It recruited homeless people from shelters and under highway overpasses, and hired labor agencies to appeal to Latino immigrants in California and Texas.
It launched a recruiting operation in Mexico, running ads on local radio stations and turning pharmacies and car washes into application centers. The company even chartered buses to transport workers directly from Mexico to its plants. While IBP insisted the workers were authorized, dozens were detained in two immigration raids on the Waterloo plant in 1996.
Later that year, it began recruiting refugees from the Bosnian war who had settled in Chicago and in Utica, New York. Over the next three years, 3,000 Bosnians came to Waterloo.
The new arrivals began fixing up homes that had suffered from decades of neglect. They opened businesses in struggling commercial areas. Soon, many moved on to other jobs, and the plant, now owned by Tyson, went on the hunt for more workers.
At the same time, immigration raids in the mid-2000s pushed many meatpackers, including Tyson, to recruit refugees and immigrants with work authorization from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. In 2010, Tyson held recruiting events in Rockford, Illinois, creating a flow of refugees from Myanmar who had been resettled there. Immigrants from Africa, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo, began arriving through the visa lottery. Marshallese and Micronesian workers also landed in Waterloo after leaving their islands in part because of climate change.
Over the course of three decades, IBP and Tyson had assembled a workforce in Waterloo from some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. They faced language barriers, health disparities and a work environment that forced them into cramped spaces.
By the time the pandemic hit, the stage had been set. Waterloo was a perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus.
As the weeks passed, it became maddeningly obvious to Ras Smith that neither the governor nor Tyson was going to do much to help workers — or Waterloo. By mid-April, he’d fielded nearly 200 calls from worried workers and residents. So, with other officials, he filed a workplace safety complaint on their behalf with the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the one agency specifically dedicated to protecting workers from getting hurt or sick.
OSHA visited the plant two days later and found a plant in flux. Workers still wore a mix of face coverings. Tyson had cut some fabric into pieces that could be used as bandanas, which workers referred to as “rags.” Some labored side-by-side without plastic dividers.
Still, the OSHA inspectors had few regulations that addressed COVID-19 directly. And the federal labor department had instructed inspectors to give employers the benefit of the doubt even if they weren’t following health guidelines. Unsurprisingly, they ultimately found no violations.
But even as the inspectors toured the Waterloo plant, the outbreak among its workers was taking a deadly turn.
Though Smith wouldn’t learn the news until days later, Sedika Buljic had become the first Tyson Waterloo worker known to have died from the disease — on April 18, the day Smith filed the OSHA complaint. He had met Buljic at a community event years ago and saw her around town. A Bosnian refugee, she’d worked a shift at the plant four days before and had gone to a doctor with a dry cough, fatigue and breathing trouble. On the day her test came back positive, Buljic’s husband found her passed out at their house and called paramedics, but they couldn’t revive her. She was 58.
An hour away in Cedar Rapids, Joseph, the Haitian immigrant, was on Day 13 of her quarantine. She told her friend Pascal that she still wasn’t feeling 100%, but she was due back at Tyson in two days. Throughout her quarantine, even as she spit up blood, Joseph told her friends and son how worried she was that Tyson would fire her.
The next morning, she called Pascal: “Can you come over? I can’t breathe.”
When Pascal arrived, Joseph was trembling. “I put clean clothes on her,” Pascal said, “and I said to her, ‘Don’t worry. When the ambulance comes, they’re going to take you to the hospital. You’re gonna get help.’”
Pascal followed the ambulance in her car, but Joseph died on the way.
A few hours later, at a hospital in Waterloo, Orvis’ health had also deteriorated and the prognosis was poor. He’d lost so much oxygen so quickly that he would need to remain permanently connected to a ventilator. Years ago, Jim had asked his brother to make end-of-life medical decisions for him. After speaking to the doctor, Jeff went to the hospital to witness his brother being taken off life support.
Jeff never wanted to make this decision for his brother, but making it during a pandemic was the most devastating part, he said. “I was all gowned up,” Jeff recalled. “They didn’t want me to touch him. I wanted to hold his hand, and I couldn’t.”
Three workers had now died in quick succession, but Tyson’s Waterloo plant continued to process hogs. Hundreds of employees were either out sick or too scared to come in.
Across the country, workers had been losing leverage against companies for decades. Workplace safety rules had been targeted by Reagan-era deregulation. Unionism was in a downward spiral. And in meatpacking, corporate power had grown with industry consolidation, forcing the once-mighty packinghouse workers union to merge with less fiery labor groups that also represented other industries, like grocery clerks. Gone were the days of Rath, when a union steward could simply drop a handkerchief and signal a work stoppage.
Now, with the union silent and multiple failed attempts by local leaders, the Black Hawk County Board of Health issued a proclamation on April 21 imploring Tyson to close. In a sign of how intertwined Tyson was with Waterloo, its chair had to recuse herself because she also worked for the company.
The next day, Tyson announced it would temporarily shut down, citing absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and “community concerns.” It also noted that the closure would disrupt the country’s pork supply. The company told ProPublica that it “immediately moved to temporarily suspend plant operations” after receiving “COVID case information” about its employees from the county health department.
Cisse Egbuonye, the county health director, said her department had repeatedly made it clear to Tyson that the plant had a crisis. “If the local health department says there’s a huge situation here, there’s a crisis, the hope is that you would trust that,” she said. “The sentiment that I received was they were waiting for direction from the corporate level.”
Months after it had developed a coronavirus task force, Tyson completed its pandemic makeover in Waterloo, installing plastic screens throughout the plant and implementing employee-wide testing. But these safeguards came too late for workers like Reberiano Garcia, 60, who was already sick with COVID-19. He died the day after the plant closed, leaving behind six children who had lost their mother to breast cancer a few months before. By then, Arthur Scott, the man who lived above Orvis and worked in a Tyson pet food plant in nearby Independence, had also died.
That night, Tyson’s president, Dean Banks, who is now the company’s CEO, appeared on CNN to address the outbreaks at multiple Tyson plants.
“From everything we’ve seen,” he said, “the spread of the disease in the community is affecting us in the plant.”
When Thompson saw the video, he said it made him want to jump out of his chair. What Banks said defied logic. The county public health director had by that point determined that 90% of the cases were tied to Tyson.
Four of Tyson’s six pork plants, including Waterloo, were shut down in April. Even so, Tyson appealed to the public and policymakers that its plants needed to keep running. Days after the Waterloo closure, Tyson took out full-page ads in various newspapers warning that the “food supply chain is breaking.” Thompson was at home when he read the news on his phone.
“Listen to this,” he said, reading the ad to his wife.
Thompson had come to Waterloo to wrestle at the University of Northern Iowa in nearby Cedar Falls. He later served in Desert Storm and the Bosnian war. “I hate bullies,” he said later. “And I felt like that full page ad in The New York Times was just them pushing us around, letting us know how big they truly were.”
But Thompson’s wife, Janel, knew her husband better than that. When he finished reading, she turned to him and said, “Ooh, they don’t know who they’re dealing with.”
Tyson’s appeals worked. On April 28, less than a week after the plant shut down and with Waterloo’s health system still under siege, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that paved the way for Tyson’s reopening in early May.
To keep workers informed about the company’s pandemic plans, Tyson relied on its team of interpreters. One of them was Axel Kabeya.
Kabeya, 35, was a lawyer in Congo and had moved to Waterloo about five years before to work at Tyson. He had three children — ages 5, 4 and 6 months old — and was a pastor at a local church. Waterloo was home to about 600 Congolese immigrants, plus hundreds more from other African countries like Liberia, most connected to Tyson by work or family. But the Congolese had their differences, compounded by the fact that some spoke French and Lingala while others spoke English and Swahili. Kabeya’s ability to speak multiple languages helped him bridge those divides.
Early on in the pandemic, misinformation circulated through WhatsApp that the virus didn’t affect Africans. Tyson depended on Kabeya to dispel such rumors and communicate health warnings to workers. He was one of about 40 full-time interpreters at the Waterloo plant, covering more than a half-dozen languages.
“He was talking to people, ‘You need to take this virus seriously,’” said his friend Nathan Kalala. “‘You need to do this, social distancing, wash your hands.’”
Kalala sighed. “But I didn’t know he was also sick.”
Another friend, Umaru Balde, said he spoke to Kabeya before he went into the hospital. He was fatigued and had a cough. Kabeya told Balde that he didn’t know how he’d been exposed but that Tyson had called him back to work during the plant’s shutdown to inform workers of their test results, and some had come in person. (Tyson has denied this.)
On May 10, Kabeya died at MercyOne Waterloo Medical Center. By then, another Tyson worker, Isidro Fernandez, had also died. And a Tyson mechanic named Jose Ayala, who was known for his hyena-like laugh, was on a ventilator in critical condition. A coworker posted a message on Facebook, looking for anyone who knew Ayala’s family in Laredo, Texas. Thanks to the post, his family was able to talk to him over video calls before he died on May 25, though he was unresponsive.
It was scenes like that which tore up Duclos of the Peoples Clinic the most — people forced to make life-or-death decisions over video calls.
“I’ve been practicing medicine for 27 years,” she said, “and I’ve not had to do that with anybody before, help them make that decision, when they’re not right there with their loved one.”
Before the Tyson outbreak, local leaders had worked hard to keep the virus out of long-term care facilities, locating protective gear and helping them put in place health guidelines. But they soon discovered the virus may have been walking in the door: Nursing home aides who lived with Tyson workers began to test positive for the virus.
To Thompson, Tyson’s failure to act had blown the county’s line of defense. “Now we’re fighting in the front yard of the nursing homes,” he said. “Now we’re fighting it in the supermarkets.”
Tyson, he acknowledged recently, has made a lot of progress since the height of the outbreak, but it should have come sooner. If it had, he said, the end of the story might have been different.
One of the first nursing home workers to get sick was Aquarius Bunch, a certified nursing assistant at New Aldaya Lifescapes. She was six months pregnant in late April when she developed muscle aches and a fever.
Bunch, 28, had no contact with any Tyson workers and, terrified of getting sick, had obsessively Googled information about the virus. But she couldn’t get a paid work release for being pregnant during the pandemic. “Of course I’ve got to work because I have to provide for my family,” she said.
She diligently washed her hands and wore masks, but it wasn’t enough. She tested positive. Her partner and their 3-year-old son had already gone to stay with a friend. There was nothing she could do but wait, alone, for the disease to pass through her. Then, one night, she woke up at 3 a.m. with a tightness in her chest and drove herself to the emergency room. Her baby was fine, a doctor said, but as she was getting ready for discharge, she passed out and woke up a few days later in a hospital bed in Iowa City.
The first thing she remembered was a nurse holding up an iPad so she could see the smiling faces of family and friends who’d gathered on a Zoom call to cheer her on. She’d had a seizure and was put on a ventilator. But her situation had been so acute that she had to be airlifted to the University of Iowa hospital about 80 miles away, where oxygen was pumped through her blood, a treatment given to less than 5% of the sickest COVID-19 patients.
Despite the battering her body had taken, her baby continued to thrive. Bunch left the hospital on Mother’s Day and gave birth to a healthy baby girl in August.
Days after Bunch had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the CEO of another Waterloo nursing home, Western Home Communities, announced that two of its employees who had tested positive had a “direct tie” to Tyson. In an April 30 Facebook message, the CEO of a third nursing home, Friendship Village, noted that two employees had been on leave since mid-April. “They live with individuals who work at Tyson. Unfortunately, these employees also tested positive today for COVID.”
Bunch said she doesn’t know how she contracted the disease. But she’s pretty sure it was from work since she was only going there and coming home. Like Friendship Village and Western Home, she said some of her coworkers live with Tyson workers.
By May, multiple nursing homes were having outbreaks. It got so dire at one point that Thompson contacted the National Guard to discuss training medics to serve as nurse’s aides because the facilities were running out of staff.
At Friendship Village, 10 residents died from complications of COVID-19 as of early June. For Remi Cehic, the director of nursing, the day-by-day uncertainty reminded her of her days fleeing Bosnia during the war.
“It definitely makes you scared and worried and brings some of those fears back of, you know, just not knowing what can happen to you, what can happen to your family,” she said.
On the hardest night, she cared for 11 COVID patients at once, “running from room to room every five minutes to give medication, to comfort one, then another.” Cehic, 45, was living at the nursing home to protect her family, arranging every so often to see her husband and kids from afar as she sat in her car in a parking lot.
The CEO of Friendship Village did not return calls seeking an interview.
As May wore on, the Tyson outbreak seemed to subside. The governor issued a proclamation that reopened a wide variety of businesses including bars. But the virus still lingered in Waterloo.
Terry Mabry didn’t work at Tyson. Nor did he work at a nursing home. He’d been a salesman for a Dodge and Chrysler dealership until diabetes and heart problems caught up with him last year. When the coronavirus came to Waterloo, he sheltered at home and warned family members to be careful. Tons of people worked at Tyson, he told them, so the virus could be anywhere. Mabry’s ex-wife worked in a hospital, so two of their kids, including one with a congenital condition, moved in with him.
But a few days after Memorial Day, it was Mabry, 53, who was huddled under two comforters, shivering in bed with the space heater on at his home on Waterloo’s east side.
Mabry’s father had come to Waterloo from Mississippi in the 1960s and worked at Rath before a career at John Deere. Everywhere Mabry went, he seemed to run into someone he knew, either from the dealership or from working the door outside his brother’s club, the Old Skool Lounge. On summer days, he would summon family and friends to his backyard with what had become his catchphrase: “Bud Light barbecue.” He’d call his kids when they got off work to tell them which roads to avoid because of deer, or show up at nightclubs to tell his adult daughters it was time to go home.
Mabry had gone to the hospital, but two days after he was released, he told his twin brother, Jerry, “I feel like something’s standing on my chest.”
Mabry was readmitted, and over the next few days, he seemed to be on a rollercoaster. The medical staff stabilized him, but he got up to use the bathroom and pulled his oxygen out. They found him unresponsive. The next day, his ex-wife Melanie Clark texted the family to say that he was doing better: “He can beat this. I know he can.”
Mabry called his daughter A’marie, then 16, early the following morning, June 14. She could barely hear him over the machines but made out the words: “I’m not dying.”
That evening, Mabry had a stroke and was admitted to the ICU. Clark and A’marie rushed to the hospital and stood outside his room as doctors performed CPR. As the rest of the family gathered in the emergency room parking lot, Jerry, a trucker, was at a rest stop in San Antonio.
“I yelled, ‘Put the phone by his ear,’” he said. “And I kept telling him to fight, to fight, fight. And then everything just went silent. I fell to my knees right in the middle of the parking lot, and I knew then he was gone.”
It’s unclear how Mabry got COVID-19. But Jerry is convinced that the Tyson outbreak started a wildfire in the community that doomed his brother.
“If it wasn’t for Tyson’s lying, the community would be a lot better off,” he said. “I’d have a few more friends that are still living, and my best friend, my twin brother, still living. Somebody from Tyson should have went to jail.”
Definitively tracing Mabry’s death back to Tyson would be nearly impossible without genetic sequencing. But in a recently published study, researchers estimated that up to 8% of the country’s COVID-19 cases through July — some 310,000 — were linked to community spread from meatpacking plant outbreaks.
Even within the Mabry family, the relationship to Tyson remains complicated. One of Mabry’s daughters worked at Tyson when the outbreak hit, but tested negative, quitting when her boss criticized her for taking more than three days off to grieve her father’s death. Another daughter started working there as a membrane skinner this fall, attracted by the starting wage of $17 an hour, which was higher than her job at a medical equipment company.
This is the push-pull of Tyson. Since the pandemic started, hundreds of Congolese residents have left Waterloo and moved to Kentucky to work at Amazon, community leaders said. But Tyson is also attracting new workers with a $15-per-day bonus through the end of the year.
By the time Mabry died, the Karenni refugee had made it out of the hospital, though it’s been a long recovery. He had to learn to walk again. Over the summer, Tyson’s short-term disability ran out, and he had to apply for unemployment. His wife had won a $500 scholarship to pay for school but had to use it to cover rent.
The man has long-term complications from COVID-19, but he’s back at work at Tyson.
“He has no other choice,” his wife said, translating. “Sometimes he has to choose between what he should do and what he wants to do.”
Cehic, the Friendship Village nursing director, had worked at IBP and Tyson for eight years after fleeing Bosnia. After work on the ham line, she took English classes and eventually became an interpreter for Tyson’s health services. Her wages, along with a part-time job at Sears, helped her pay for nursing school. Despite the ties that local officials have drawn between the outbreaks at Tyson and nursing homes, she said she doesn’t blame Tyson; COVID-19 would have come eventually.
“People that have never been there might think that it’s a horrible place, but it’s not,” Cehic said of the plant. “It was the only company here in Waterloo that really reached out and helped us out a lot.”
For Anna Mae Weems and other keepers of Waterloo’s history, the workers’ union has been noticeably quiet as the virus ravaged the Tyson plant. “I’m wondering who’s doing something about it,” Weems said. The old union would stop the line over seemingly trivial things, but the United Food and Commercial Workers local didn’t hold a walkout or work stoppage, which labor laws significantly restrict, as more than 1,000 workers got infected. And it did not stand publicly with local officials calling for the plant to shut down.
In fact, Samuel Stokes, a union representative with the UFCW local, defended the company in an interview at his office, where he’d hung Rath memorabilia as decoration. Stokes worked at the Waterloo plant for more than 20 years and as the pandemic unfolded, he said the company was doing the best it could, but some of its workers hadn’t cooperated. “Tyson is doing a lot of different things to try to help their people,” Stokes said. “But it’s a mixed bunch of people. Some believe, ‘Nah, this ain’t nothing.’”
He said the union has advocated for increased hazard pay during the pandemic, and in recent weeks, the union stewards at the plant have pushed the company to fix plastic barriers that had fallen down or been punctured by workers. Nationally, the UFCW has called for food workers to be prioritized for a vaccine.
But with workers’ voices publicly absent, it fell to community leaders like Thompson to advocate for them. “I think a lot of those workers felt that way, that they were just unrepresented until somebody finally spoke up,” Thompson said. “And that in and of itself makes me kind of sad, that they feel like their only value is the amount of product that they push down the line.”
Seated in his office this fall, Thompson said he felt like he’d let the community down.
“We lost,” he said. “I couldn’t get Tyson to do what we needed them to do.” He folded his hands and looked down at the floor. “We failed. We failed a lot of people.”
Speaking up for workers during the pandemic had also fallen on leaders like Smith, who once held an appreciation for how the grueling jobs offered the promise of advancement for so many families he worked with in Waterloo’s schools.
But in a matter of weeks, Tyson’s response to COVID-19 had shattered his faith in the company. “I just don’t have that trust factor with them,” he said.
During a plant tour for public officials this fall, Smith said Tyson representatives wouldn’t take responsibility for the outbreak and instead told them employees were turning their company jackets inside out because local officials had soiled its name.
And when he found out recently that Tyson managers had been accused of downplaying the virus and wagering on how many workers would get infected, Smith said the upsetting part was that he wasn’t surprised. “They have great power but they did not exercise a certain responsibility that comes along with that,” he said.
Following the allegations, Tyson hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate and the seven managers were subsequently fired.
As disruptive as the pandemic has been to its business, Tyson has fared well. In a recent corporate filing, the company noted that it has racked up $540 million in pandemic-related expenses due to absenteeism, downtime and protective equipment. But the company’s bottom line remained strong. In the final quarter of Tyson’s fiscal year 2020 alone, it made nearly $700 million in profit and reported that income related to pork production had increased sixfold from the year before.
Last month, as Waterloo residents sheltered amid a new coronavirus spike, Rath’s brick administration building stood as one of the last relics of meatpacking’s past. The graying and graffitied plywood that boarded up its windows had fallen or been pulled down.
Meanwhile, four miles east, tractor-trailers passed through the gate of the Tyson plant, ready to deliver the latest batch of pork to America and the world — fresh from Waterloo, Iowa.
ABOUT THE REPORTING
To reconstruct how COVID-19 spread through Waterloo, reporters interviewed more than 75 people, ranging from government officials to health care providers to meatpacking workers. They reviewed daily emergency management reports from mid-March into December, OSHA complaints and inspections, medical records from patients’ families, and hundreds of emails from the city of Waterloo and Black Hawk County.
To trace the arc of meatpacking’s history in Waterloo, reporters relied on oral histories, academic papers, books, archived newspaper articles, meatpacking company records, and original interviews with former Rath Packing Company workers and community leaders.
In particular, they drew from oral histories from the University of Iowa Labor Center, the United Packinghouse Workers of America oral history project and the Grout Museum of History and Science, as well as interviews with and the scholarship of Bruce Fehn of the University of Iowa, Roger Horowitz of the University of Delaware, Rick Halpern of the University of Toronto, local Waterloo historian Bob Neymeyer, Rebecca Conard of Middle Tennessee State University and independent scholar Herbert Plummer Jones.