Families of Tyson workers with COVID-19 condemn company's labor practices

A truck leaves Tyson's Chick-N-Quick processing plant in Rogers, Arkansas, where 35 workers have contracted COVID-19. (Photo by Olivia Paschal.) 

On April 22, activists with workers' justice organization Venceremos marched to the front door of Tyson's Berry Street poultry processing plant in the city of Springdale in Northwest Arkansas to deliver a petition signed by more than 100 workers demanding better protection, benefits, and hazard pay from the company during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two days later, several state and federal health officials toured the Berry Street plant and the company's Chick-N-Quick plant in nearby Rogers, Arkansas, lauding the company's safety measures as exemplifying "best practices" for the industry. Tyson, the world's second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, has its global headquarters in Springdale.

By the end of May, days after the first COVID-19 cases in Tyson's Northwest Arkansas plants were confirmed, protestors were back, standing outside the Berry Street plant and demanding the facility be shut down and deep cleaned. "We are tired of your videos that show everything is clean," organizer Magaly Licolli said at the protest. "We know the truth."

And then on June 11, Tyson announced that nearly 250 workers at its Berry Street plant had tested positive for COVID-19. A week later, it said that widespread testing across its seven Northwest Arkansas processing plants had discovered 481 people had contracted the virus — 13% of its workforce in the region — in addition to 212 workers who were diagnosed by the Arkansas Department of Health or their own health care providers. Venceremos was back in the streets on Saturday night, demanding the state government shut down plants with an outbreak.

Family members of Tyson workers in Northwest Arkansas who have contracted COVID-19 tell Facing South that the company is demanding they go back into work or risk losing their hazard pay.

Jackie Tobias, a Springdale resident whose mother, aunts, and uncles moved to Northwest Arkansas from California more than 20 years ago to work in Tyson's poultry plants, said that her uncle received his positive test results on June 8, and his health almost immediately took a turn for the worse. Then Tyson called.

"It was less than four days later after my uncle tested positive for COVID-19 he received a call from the supervisor at Tyson, saying 'you're expected to return to work,'" Tobias told Facing South. "And of course, he can't even get out of bed right now because he's so weak from the virus."

CDC guidelines currently recommend that people with symptoms should quarantine until they've gone three days without a fever and at least 10 days since symptoms initially appeared, and that people who test positive and are asymptomatic should quarantine for 10 days following their test. A spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) told Facing South via email that poultry employees who test positive "must enter isolation for the duration of their illness" and "should not return to work without a letter releasing them from isolation from ADH."

But Tyson supervisors warned Tobias' uncle that if he didn't return to work, he would forfeit his hazard pay, she says — the second of two $500 "bonuses" given to Tyson workers on the front-lines of the virus, bonuses that are dependent on attendance.

"The hazard pay makes zero sense," Tobias said. "If it's truly hazard pay, you should receive it whether or not you miss work. You're receiving that [as] someone that is showing up to work every single day, in a hazardous condition, in a work environment where you are at risk of catching an infectious disease that could possibly kill you."

Tyson did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article.

"It's just so careless," said Ana, a Northwest Arkansas resident whose parents both work at the Chick-N-Quick plant in Rogers and whose mother tested positive for the virus. She asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect her parents' jobs. "They don't care about anything, about any of their employees. They don't want to stop working just for two weeks, just so they don't lose money."

Tyson has publicly stated that workers who miss work due to illness will continue to be eligible for the bonus. But Ana told Facing South that her mother, who was initially asymptomatic but later developed minor symptoms, was also called back into work within days of receiving her positive test result — and, when she refused, was told her hazard pay was on the line. Her mother is now on paid leave, she said, but she received another call last weekend telling her it was time for her to report for work. She's still not sure whether she'll receive her hazard pay. "My mom has diabetes, she's in the high risk category," Ana said, "We're more worried about her because of her condition." Her father, who tested negative for the virus, is also at home quarantining because of her mother's positive test result.

Both of Ana's parents, like Tobias' family, were at work in the days between getting tested and receiving their results. "They had no choice," said Ana. "They had to go in, and if they didn't go in, they got points for it." "Points" are the system Tyson uses to, in its words, "monitor absenteeism"; if a worker receives too many points on their record, they risk being fired.

In its press release, Tyson said that 95% of its Northwest Arkansas employees who tested positive for COVID-19 were asymptomatic, which means that they were on the line while infected and could have spread the infection to friends and family members because they didn't know they had the virus. It also means that many employees went back to work within days of receiving their positive test results, in an environment where adequate social distancing is nearly impossible and where, if they are still contagious, they risk infecting other workers. Tyson, like other poultry companies, takes workers' temperatures before allowing them into factories — but a temperature test won't catch a person with the virus if they're asymptomatic.

The virus is hitting Northwest Arkansas hard, in part because of the prevalence of poultry plants in the region. And it's disproportionately impacting immigrant communities, who make up a significant amount of the poultry workforce.

Northwest Arkansas is home to more than 10,000 Marshallese people, who immigrated to the region from their homes in the Marshall Islands, used for nuclear weapons testing by the United States in the mid-20th century, under a free association agreement. A recent survey by the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese found that 82% of respondents have essential workers in their household, which includes poultry workers. Now, though the Marshallese community makes up less than 3% of Northwest Arkansas's population, they account for half of the region's COVID-19 deaths, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. At least 18 Marshallese people have died due to the virus. And the region's Hispanic residents, many of whom moved to Arkansas specifically to work in the poultry industry, are also being hit hard: A CDC team was in Northwest Arkansas last week to investigate the outbreak in the Hispanic population, and local hospitals say they're seeing a positive test rate of more than 20% for Hispanic patients.

"The statement that continues going around with employees is, 'They take better care of their chickens than they do their employees,'" said Tobias. "My family members that work for Tyson, they just feel defeated. They don't see the company in the same light that they used to before." Banners hung on the fence outside of Tyson's Northwest Arkansas plants proclaim, "Our work feeds the nation." But in April, the company exported a record amount of pork to China. Workers have publicly urged the company to slow down speeds on its processing lines.

Venceremos has been calling for the closure and deep cleaning of COVID-19-affected poultry plants in Northwest Arkansas for weeks. But that's likely a step Tyson would have to take itself: An executive order signed by President Donald Trump in April declared meatpacking plants critical infrastructure and prevents state and local governments from shutting them down. Tyson is under mounting pressure to take some action; on Sunday, China suspended poultry imports from the Berry Street plant.

But Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) told local television station KNWA that he doesn't think meatpacking plants should be shut down. The ADH spokesperson told Facing South that distancing and proper face coverings are more important than cleaning, since the virus most significantly spreds person-to-person. "In addition, spread in the community affects spread in workplaces, and spread in workplaces affects spread in the community," she wrote. So instead, some workers' families are taking their stories public in hopes of spurring action by the company.

"They need to accept the responsibility. Just own up to it and say, 'Yes, we failed our employees,'" said Tobias. "Tyson is headquartered in Springdale, it's not like they're headquartered somewhere else and have a small satellite office here and a bunch of plants. I mean, they are here in their backyard."