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Groups advocate for safety at Tyson

Add virus-curb efforts, it urges by Nathan Owens | July 8, 2020 at 2:32 a.m.

Tyson Foods Inc. is drawing criticism from more than 120 advocacy groups that want to see improved safety measures for processing-plant workers during the pandemic.

Meatpacking plants became hot spots for the coronavirus early on. Supply chain disruptions prevented food and other goods from reaching store shelves, in part because of worker absenteeism at the plants, which slowed production.

Those kinks have been ironed out, for the most part, and despite companies' efforts to follow federal health guidelines and make their facilities safer, workers continue to get sick as positive cases rise across the country.

Critics this week are urging Tyson Foods, the nation's largest producer of beef, pork and chicken, and its 10 largest investors to continue improving safety measures for workers, such as slowing down slaughter line speeds and offering paid sick leave.

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"There is more to this than a concern for your right to an uninterrupted supply of chicken tenders, bacon and T-bone steaks," Magaly Licolli, co-founder of Venceremos, a worker advocacy group in Springdale, said in a statement Monday. "We must think deeply about the meaning of frontline food workers in our daily lives and stand up for their human rights and dignity."

Licolli has been leading protests in Northwest Arkansas recently and called for constituents on Tuesday to pressure Gov. Asa Hutchinson to close the state's poultry plants.

There were 584 active covid-19 cases linked to Arkansas poultry plants, the Department of Health reported Monday. About 45% of the infected workers are Hispanic, and most of the cases are clustered in Washington and Benton counties.

"Our top priority is the well-being of our team members, their families and our communities, and we are doing everything we can to keep them safe and healthy," Tyson spokesman Derek Burleson said in an email Tuesday.

Springdale-based Tyson said it took steps early on to prevent the spread of the virus, placing protective barriers on production lines and giving masks to workers. It is working with medics to conduct widespread testing at the processing plants and installed infrared temperature scanners to check employees for fever.

A mix of workers' rights, animal welfare, environmental, racial justice and consumer safety groups claim that there is more work to be done.

In a letter to Tyson and its investors, including the Vanguard Group and BlackRock Inc., 122 advocates encouraged provisions such as paid sick leave for all infected employees and those working nearby, and disclosing all covid-19 cases to the public. They also called for worker protections from retaliation, slower slaughter line speeds and eliminating a point system that can result in the termination of workers for missing a certain number of shifts.

"The last few months have shown us how fragile our food system is, with meatpacking companies like Tyson representing one of the weakest links," they said in the letter.

The groups plan to pressure Tyson the rest of this week with grassroots tactics, including petitions, social media, emails and phone calls urging for more health and safety measures for employees.

About 9% of America's meatpacking workers, or 16,233, contracted covid-19 in the month of May, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were also 86 virus-related deaths among such workers during that time, and more have likely happened since.

An executive order that enacted the Defense Protection Act to ensure the continued operations of U.S. meatpacking plants was signed shortly after Chairman John Tyson took out full-page ads in several newspapers, warning the nation of a pandemic-charged meat shortage.

Skeptical Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., last month said they were looking into the meat shortage, which led to higher U.S. meat prices, after companies shipped a record amount of pork to China.

Tyson was linked to 8,888 worker infections as of Tuesday, according to The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom based in Illinois. Tyson is now being sued by families of three workers who died from covid-19 after a outbreak among employees at its Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant.

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