A manager at Tyson Foods who was fired for participating in an office betting pool on how many coworkers would contract COVID-19 said it was meant as a “morale boost” and was done without “malicious intent.”
Don Merschbrock, one of seven terminated managers for the sick stunt at the company’s pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, broke his silence in an interview with the Associated Press, claiming supervisors came up with the idea last spring, just after mass testing of 2,800 workers at the facility.
The Tyson employee of 10 years and former night manager said the entry fee for the winner-take-all pool was $50, which went to the person who picked the correct percentage of workers who came down with the virus.
Those who took part didn’t think the pool violated company policy, Merschbrock said.
“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.”
Merschbrock said managers at the facility were faced with an “impossible task” of keeping up production at its largest pork plant while incorporating virus precautions, leading to 12-hour shifts up to seven days a week. The supervisors are “not the evil people” that company officials have characterized, he said.
“We really want to clear our names,” Merschbrock said. “We actually worked very hard and took care of our team members well.”
Tyson fired the supervisors weeks after a federal lawsuit in Iowa alleged that Tom Hart, the manager at the Waterloo plant, organized the cash buy-in pool in late March and April as he and other top employees avoided the plant floor out of fears of contracting the virus.
More than two dozen workers at the plant were hospitalized with coronavirus on April 12, according to the lawsuit. Company officials said in May that more than 1,000 workers had tested positive – killing at least six.
Attorneys for the estates of four dead Tyson employees claim in wrongful death lawsuits that the pool shows the company is not concerned with safety.
An investigation led by former US Attorney General Eric Holder found sufficient evidence to lead to the firings, saying those involved violated the company’s values.
Tyson has not released Holder’s findings and the managers who have fired insist they were terminated without an explanation, the Associated Press reported.
A spokesman for Tyson declined to comment on Merschbrock’s claims, according to the report.
Mel Orchard, who represents families of the dead employees, said keeping workers safe at the plant was not an impossible task.
“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,” Orchard said. “But I do understand why and how this could have happened.”
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