COVID Lawsuit Implicates Interpreters

Interpreters working for meat manufacturer Tyson Foods are now involved in a covid-related lawsuit against the company. The suit, filed September 23rd, alleges Tyson knowingly exposed people working at its Waterloo, Iowa pork plant to the disease, resulting in more than 1,000 positive cases and in three employee deaths.

New this month, an amended complaint to the suit alleges that interpreters may have played a role in keeping essential outbreak information from limited-English staff. These interpreters were in-house — not freelancers — and the court filing does not include which language(s) they spoke or whether they still work at the plant today. These interpreters are also not individually named. Instead, the complaint focuses exclusively on the role it says they played, claiming that


  • In early April, interpreters attended a closed door meeting with plant manager Tom Hart and human resources director James Hook,
  • Hart and Hook “directed the interpreters to tell non-English speaking employees: ‘everything is fine,’ and there is no outbreak at the plant,” that there were “no confirmed cases,” and that the county health department “had ‘cleared’ the plant” — things the complaint says were untrue,
  • Management “explicitly forbid interpreters from discussing COVID-19” outside of these approved denials.

After this and other meetings, the amendment claims “most interpreters were removed from the plant floor.” Whether Tyson pulled them or individual interpreters made their own decisions not to work, the filing doesn’t say. In the United States, there are agreed-upon codes of ethics for medical and legal interpreters, but not for those operating in a manufacturing or business setting. One thing these existing codes all have in common, though, is accuracy and completeness. According to the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), a professional interpreter “strives to render the message accurately, conveying the content and spirit of the original message, taking into consideration its cultural context.” Ethically, it’s not to any plant interpreter — working at Tyson or anywhere else — to add to or take away from the original language message.

Note the NCIHC code does allow for intervention, though: “When the patient’s health, well-being, or dignity is at risk, the interpreter may be justified in acting as an advocate. Advocacy is understood as an action taken on behalf of an individual that goes beyond facilitating communication, with the intention of supporting good health outcomes. Advocacy must only be undertaken after careful and thoughtful analysis of the situation and if other less intrusive actions have not resolved the problem.”

Terena Bell
Terena Bell is an independent journalist who writes for The Atlantic, Washington Post, Fast Company and others. She is former CEO of In Every Language.

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