At least 4,500 Tyson workers have caught COVID-19, with 18 dying. The meat giant still doesn't offer paid sick leave, as the industry blames workers for outbreaks.

·5 min read
Workers leave the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Indiana, on May 7, 2020 (Michael Conroy_AP Photo

Workers leave the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Indiana, on May 7, 2020.

Michael Conroy/AP Photo

  • At least 4,585 Tyson workers in 15 states have been diagnosed with COVID-19. 18 have died.

  • Tyson has improved safety measures and relaxed attendance policies, but still does not offer full paid sick leave for workers.

  • Some politicians and meat industry insiders are blaming the actions and "living circumstances" of employees — many of whom are immigrants — for plants becoming coronavirus hot spots.

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Some meat industry insiders and politicians are blaming employees for meat processing plants becoming the new hotspots for the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, workers say employers failed to keep them safe. And, despite new safety policies, meat industry giants including Tyson still do not provide full, paid sick leave.

An analysis by Business Insider found that at least 4,585 cases of COVID-19 and 18 deaths have been linked to Tyson. Cases span meat processing plants in 15 states, according to data from state and local governments, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting,The Counter, and local news publications.

Tyson did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment.

Tyson previously highlighted its new steps taken to protect workers, including taking employees' temperatures, requiring workers to wear facemasks, additional daily deep cleaning, and installing workstation dividers. The company says it has relaxed its attendance policy, waived the waiting period to qualify for short-term disability, as well as the co-pay, co-insurance, and deductible costs for COVID-19 testing.

However, the company still does not offer full paid sick leave. Instead, Tyson offers short-term disability, which covers 60% of workers' pay.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has encouraged meat processing plants to make it easier for workers to take paid sick leave to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Progressive organizers argue the lack of paid sick leave makes certain groups even more vulnerable, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We see expanding access to paid sick leave, and family and medical leave, as an economic justice issue," said Nicole Regalado, the deputy director of the ACLU's liberty division. "It's also a women's rights issue and a racial justice issue."

Some people are blaming meat processing workers for their own illnesses

Tyson Foods coronavirus

Workstation divider at Tyson Foods' Chick N Quick plant in Rogers, Ark. April 24, 2020

Tyson Foods

According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, there have been at least 12,500 COVID-19 cases and 51 deaths in the meatpacking industry across the US. Experts told Business Insider last week that meat processing plants are the next hotspot for the coronavirus, as many of the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases are centered around slaughterhouses.

As the number of COVID-19 cases has skyrocketed, some politicians and meat industry insiders have blamed workers.

More than half of frontline workers in the meat processing industry are immigrants, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. People of color also make up the majority of the meatpacking workforce — 44% of meatpackers are Latino and 25% are black.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said in an interview with Fox News in April that Smithfield employees at a Sioux Falls meat processing plant were not getting sick at work, but instead at home "because a lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the same community, the same buildings, sometimes in the same apartments." At least 783 workers from the Smithfield plant have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and two have died.

In late April, a Smithfield representative echoed Noem's comments, telling BuzzFeed News that the plant's "large immigrant population" in which "living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family" contributed to the hundreds of COVID-19 cases. A Smithfield representative told Business Insider that the BuzzFeed article "is in no way, shape or form representative of our position on this topic."

"They come from all over the world and speak dozens of languages and dialects. Our position is this: We cannot fight this virus by finger-pointing," the representative said. "We all have a responsibility to slow the spread. At Smithfield, we are a family and we will navigate these truly challenging and unprecedented times together."

Politico reported last week that HHS Secretary Alex Azar said on a call in late April that clusters of COVID-19 cases in the meat processing industry were more heavily linked to "home and social" aspects of employees' lives, not the conditions in plants.

Last week, while discussing the legality of Wisconsin's stay at home order, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack sparked backlash after saying that a cluster of COVID-19 cases was tied to a JBS meat processing plant — not "regular folks." 

Workers and unions representing meat processing plants' employees have pushed back on this narrative, saying that employers failed to take the necessary precautions to keep employees safe. Attorney Bill Marler told Business Insider recently that America's response to clusters in meat processing plants has been influenced by who has become ill.

"If that was a grade school full of white kids, we'd all be freaking out," Marler said of the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

President Trump signed an executive order in April demanding that meat processing plants stay open to prevent meat shortages. With pork and beef production plunging by 35% due to plants' closures, experts say says shortages and price inflation are nearly guaranteed in the coming months. 

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