Poultry-worker advocate group Venceremos of Arkansas has been floating petitions around Tyson Foods’ chicken plants in Northwest Arkansas asking for better COVID-19 pandemic-related working conditions to include paid leave, contact tracing and quarantining.
Magaly Licolli, executive director at Venceremos, spoke to Talk Business & Politics on Sept. 3 regarding concerns Tyson workers have about their safety and their need to earn a living without jeopardizing their health. Licolli said workers will take the petition to Tyson’s corporate headquarters in Springdale on Wednesday (Sept 8).
She said the protocol Tyson has put into place may sound good but in practice, it does not work. She said workers have reported the scanners Tyson put into place are not an effective way to signal COVID infections as many cases are asymptomatic. Another concern is the partitions Tyson said it has put in place to protect line workers. Licolli claims other areas such as break rooms and restrooms do not allow for social distancing among workers.
Outside of the COVID safety issues, Licolli said workers seek higher pay given the line speeds have increased and they are working faster with fewer breaks to keep up with food demand.
“Tyson gave a $2 per hour raise to first shift workers recently and second and third shift workers got $4 per hour. There are workers who have been with Tyson Foods for a decade and still earning less than $14 per hour. New hires are getting paid more than other line workers who have been there for years. There is no incentive for workers to stay,” she said.
Tyson Foods told Talk Business & Politics on Friday the health and safety of its employees is the company’s top priority.
“The safety measures at our facilities to protect workers remain in place and our ongoing work to combat COVID is highlighted in the attached document. We are communicating with all close contacts regardless of vaccination status. If our team members have questions or concerns, they are actively encouraged to speak with their supervisors, any member of management, local human resources representative or their Union representative, Help Line, Web Line or the Ethics & Compliance department” said Derek Burleson, corporate spokesman for Tyson Foods.
Tyson said as of Sept. 3, more than 90,000, or 75% of its U.S. employees, have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. The company said last month it would require vaccination by Nov. 1 resulting in more than 30,000 vaccinations over the past month. The company also is giving employees a $200 bonus for being vaccinated. The workers are also eligible for weekly drawings of $10,000. If workers want to get their vaccination outside the plant they are compensated for up to four hours of regular pay.
Licolli said there are still many workers unvaccinated. She said there are fears, religious beliefs and health concerns voiced by some of those she represents. She said the $200 one-time bonus is not a long-term solution or incentive to convincing those with real concerns to get vaccinated.
She said the short-term disability plan announced by Tyson is not effective because they are using an outside service for claim processing, which means language barriers and other challenges exist. Consequently, Licolli said workers do not always file claims because they are not clear on how to deal with this third party.
She said if labor shortages is really the company’s top issue then there is more than management can do to retain the workers it already employs.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and the affiliated Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union said they support Tyson Foods’ new vaccination requirement. The groups represent about 31,000 unionized Tyson workers.
Tyson said it will also provide up to two weeks of paid leave for employees who have been fully vaccinated and tested positive for the COVID-19 over the next six months. Tyson is also compensating workers for time spent in educational sessions about the benefits and risks of COVID vaccines. The increased benefits are reserved for fully vaccinated employees. Tyson also said it is piloting flexible work schedules at production facilities and it has health clinics at seven locations to provide access to free health care. The closest clinic to the workers in Springdale and Rogers is in Green Forest.