Workers, officials say too little too late after Tyson closes Waterloo pork plant: 'All they talked about was production'

The Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo, Iowa, has a workforce of nearly 3,000.

(CNN)After more than a week of public pressure, Tyson announced Wednesday morning it will "indefinitely suspend operations" at its Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant that employs 2,800 people. However, workers and some officials say the halt comes too late.

Almost half of Black Hawk County, Iowa's Covid-19 cases are connected to the plant, according to the county health department. As of Tuesday, there were 182 cases linked to the plant. Wednesday, the county reported 379 total cases.
In a statement, Tyson told CNN the plant, which is the company's largest pork plant, had already "been running at reduced levels of production due to worker absenteeism."
      "Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production," said Tyson Fresh Meats Group President Steve Stouffer in the statement.
        In an interview with CNN's Erin Burnett on Thursday, Dean Banks, the president of Tyson, didn't address specific allegations employees made in this article.
          "We're doing everything we can to make sure we take care of our team members," Banks said.
          "What we've seen is that our plants live within a community," Banks said.
          "From everything we've seen, the spread of the disease in the community is affecting us in the plant," he said.
          Tyson was "extremely early in providing as many protective measures as we could possibly imagine," Banks said.
          "The vast majority of our plants have no cases," he said.
          CNN spoke to three employees who work in the facility but did not want to be named for fear of losing their jobs. They describe conditions and priorities that are at odds with statements given by Tyson and the state's governor, Kim Reynolds, who said they were taking care of their employees.
          "You know what's heading this way," one plant employee, a cut floor worker, explained to CNN. "Why wait? Why wait 'til it's too late?"
          The cut floor worker said he's grateful to local officials for continuing to pressure the company to shutter the factory, but he took umbrage with the reasons Tyson offered for doing so.
          "Complaining about worker absenteeism as workers have died is even more distasteful than their claim workers are their first priority," he told CNN on Wednesday.
          Local officials said they are relieved but still deeply concerned.
          "This will relieve future issues with our outbreak and slow the spread now (hopefully)," said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson.
          However, Thompson -- who, as the chairman of the emergency management commission, oversees the county's coronavirus response -- also said the move is "a little too late for our deaths and the hundreds already infected."
          "The damage is done," Thomspon said Tuesday night, before the closure was announced. "The cows are out of the barn, they're down the road, we can't get them back. We can't fix it. All we can do is react to the problems they've created for us."
          "What we've seen is that our plants live within a community," Banks said.
          "From everything we've seen, the spread of the disease in the community is affecting us in the plant."
          "The vast majority of our plants have no cases," Banks claimed.
          Tyson said that "for the privacy of our team members we are not disclosing numbers of confirmed cases in our facilities."
          Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart told CNN the plant should have been closed sooner.
          "Implementing safety precautions at this particular point, we believe it's too late," he said Wednesday. "At this point closing, cleaning, testing people is the best scenario moving forward. And I understand the impact that this has on our national food chain, but in order to be able to stop the spread, this was the best course of action to support the workers that prepare our food."
          Reynolds made no mention of the plant's closure in her daily news conference remarks Wednesday but broadly defended her actions.
          "There's always more we could have done, but I think we've tried to be very proactive," Reynolds said.
          According to the statement from Tyson Foods, "affected Waterloo team members will continue to be compensated while the plant is closed. The timing of resumption of operations will depend on a variety of factors, including the outcome of team member testing for COVID-19."

          'I'm not going to risk their lives to cut some damn hogs up'

          Plant employees, like the ones CNN spoke with, have been deemed essential employees as they help keep the nation's food supply chain intact. While they understand the importance of maintaining that supply chain, the pork processing plant employees expressed ongoing concerns that not enough was done to protect them from Covid-19.
          "I hear the argument of, we've got to keep the food supply chain open," the cut floor worker said, but "with all these tests coming back, if the numbers get up there, it warrants a shutdown."
          Several other meat processing plants across the country, including a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a JBS meat processing plant in Worthington, Minnesota, have closed temporarily after suspected outbreaks were reported.
          "I want my job, but I want a safe job," another employee told CNN. "I got family and grandkids that I love, and I'm not going to risk their lives to cut some damn hogs up."
          Donald, who requested CNN use only his first name, is a longtime Tyson employee. He said he tested positive for Covid-19 nearly two weeks ago and has been recuperating at home from the virus. Donald said he's frustrated that Tyson didn't shut down sooner. He said he knew several of the team members who have died as a result of complications of the virus.
          "Tyson owes a lot of people an apology," Donald told CNN. "I love working with Tyson, but as I see it, Tyson has no morals for me (or) for my life. If they did, they would have shut it down, and I wouldn't be infected with this virus right now."
          He tells CNN that pra