- At least 4,585 Tyson workers in 15 states have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 18 have died.
- Tyson has announced improved safety measures and relaxed attendance policies, but it still does not offer full paid sick leave for workers, instead offering short-term disability that is 90% of workers’ pay.
- Some politicians and meat-industry insiders have blamed 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 coronavirus hot spots.
Meanwhile, workers say their 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 at least 4,585 cases of COVID-19 and 18 deaths linked to Tyson. The 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 has highlighted the new steps it’s taking to protect workers, including taking temperatures, requiring face masks, instituting additional daily deep cleanings, and installing workstation dividers. The company says it has relaxed its attendance policy and waived the waiting period to qualify for short-term disability, as well as the copay, coinsurance, and deductible costs for COVID-19 testing.
However, Tyson still does not offer full paid sick leave; instead, it offers short-term disability. Until the end of April, Tyson's short-term disability covered only 60% of pay. On April 29, the company said it raised short-term disability coverage to 90% of normal pay until the end of June.
A Tyson representative told Business Insider that the company increased its short-term disability pay as "another way of encouraging team members to stay home when they are sick."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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 have argued that 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 American Civil Liberties Union'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
According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, there were at least 12,500 COVID-19 cases and 51 deaths in the meatpacking industry across the US as of Sunday.
Experts told Business Insider last week that meat-processing plants were the next coronavirus hot spots, as many of the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases have been linked to 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 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 News 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 Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, 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 by saying a cluster of COVID-19 cases was tied to a JBS meat-processing plant and its workers, not "regular folks."
Workers and unions representing employees of meat-processing plants have pushed back, saying employers failed to take the necessary precautions to keep employees safe. Bill Marler, an attorney, recently told Business Insider that America's response to clusters in meat-processing plants had 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.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April requiring meat-processing plants to stay open to prevent meat shortages. Experts have said that with pork and beef production plunging by 35% because of plant closures, shortages and price inflation are nearly guaranteed in the coming months.