Tyson Foods, one of the largest meat packing companies in the US, says it is aiming to vaccinate all of its 120,000 workers, both at its processing plants and corporate office, by Nov. 1. The Arkansas-based company said it will hand out a $200 bonus to fully vaccinated essential workers.
As Covid-19 variants continue to spread, Tyson Foods CEO Donnie King said the decision was made to protect the safety of Tyson’s workforce, the Wall Street Journal reported. “We did not take this decision lightly,” King wrote in a memo to employees. “We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated—today, under half of our team members are.”
The move comes after a string of lawsuits were filed against the meat processing giant including a class-action suit, filed on behalf of shareholders, as well suits by at least six families of employees who died of Covid-19, the Des Moines Register reported. The suits allege that in the early days of the pandemic, Tyson disregarded worker safety guidelines and had even encouraged employees who showed symptoms of the illness to work. In response, Tyson told the newspaper outlet it acted in accordance with federal orders. The company had also fired seven managers at an Iowa pork plant after an investigation found that they were betting on how many workers would get sick from coronavirus.
In an email, a Tyson spokesperson said the company would not comment on the suits but that it has invested approximately $700 million in health and safety measures for its employees.
To date, 56,000 of Tyson’s US employees have been vaccinated. Some workers have been hesitant of getting vaccinated due to safety concerns as well as language barriers.
Tyson’s policy reflects how meatpacking workers have been hit hard by the crisis. Since April 2020, there have been at least 50,000 reported positive cases tied to meat and poultry processing facilities and at least 259 reported worker deaths, according to data from Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Last year, a study from the University of California, San Francisco’s Institute for Global Health Sciences found death rates for working age adults in California were highest among food and agriculture workers between March and October 2020.
Food and agriculture workers were at high risk due in part to difficulty accessing personal protective equipment, at least in the early days of the pandemic, and being able to social distance. But part of it could also be explained by socioeconomic factors. Food and agricultural workers are more likely than the average US worker to be uninsured and live in crowded homes, and cannot afford to quit a job out of financial reasons, according to the UCSF researchers.
Tyson is the first of the meatpacking companies to mandate vaccinations. JBS USA, the US subsidiary of one of the world’s largest meat suppliers, told Quartz in an email it is having conversations with union partners about the possibility of a vaccine mandate. So far, it said, the company’s focus has been on providing education and offering incentives to its workforce, which has resulted in nearly 70% of US employees being vaccinated to date.