Tyson Foods mandates COVID-19 vaccines for employees – raising the safety bar for industry

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/ Morsa Images
Source: Getty/ Morsa Images

Related tags: Tyson foods, COVID

As the Delta variant of the coronavirus sweeps across the US, Tyson Foods said Tuesday that it would require its 120,000 US workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by November – making it the first major meat packer and largest food company so far to mandate inoculation.

The mandate comes weeks after the Government Accountability Office took USDA to task for not stepping up oversight of worker safety at meat and poultry packing facilities, and more than a year after Tyson temporarily shuttered its Waterloo meat packing plant due to a COVID-19 outbreak – a move that was followed by temporary closures of other meat packing facilities owned by Smithfield Foods and JBS Foods, which also experienced outbreaks early in the pandemic.

Smithfield Foods and JBS Foods have not indicated whether they will mandate employees receive the coronavirus vaccine, but a handful of other food and beverage industry players have. Among them is Walmart, which will require them for corporate employees but not hourly workers at stores – a distinction that could be a nod to ongoing labor shortages and fear of employee backlash or scaring away potential employees.

‘Nothing is more important than our team members’ health’

While labor shortages are a significant risk for many in the food and beverage industry, Tyson’s declaration suggests this threat does not measure up to the one posed by the coronavirus and its variants.

“As people have heard, new variants of COVID-19 are more contagious, more deadly and responsible for most cases in America today. In some communities, doctors and hospitals are once again overwhelmed, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting nearly all hospitalizations and deaths in the US are among those who are unvaccinated,”​ Donnie King, president and CEO at Tyson Foods, said in an open letter to employees.

Thus, he added, “it is abundantly clear that getting vaccinated is the single most effective thing we can do to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.”

With this in mind, all Tyson leadership must be vaccinated by Sept. 24, team members in office by Oct. 1 and all other team members by Nov. 1, he said in the letter. Currently, half of Tyson’s employees are vaccinated.

To further encourage frontline team members, Tyson is offering those who are fully vaccinated $200 “as a thank you for doing your part to keep us all safe,” he said.

Ultimately, King said, the decision to mandate vaccination was not taken lightly, but was made “because nothing is more important than our team members’ health and safety, and we thank them for the work they do, every day, to help us feed this country, and our world.”

A broad effort

While JBS and Smithfield have not mandated vaccines, they are encouraging inoculation through vaccination clinics and giveaways.

Last week, JBS announced several free COVID-19 vaccine clinics and the chance to win free meat for a year. This is in addition to hosting multiple onsite vaccination clinics, offering paid time and a $100 incentive bonus to employees to get vaccinated and a multi-lingual education campaign. As a result of these efforts, the company says nearly 70% of its US workforce is vaccinated compared with a national rate of 49%.

Earlier this year, Smithfield offered the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to employees at its Sioux Falls facility who volunteered.

GAO: USDA needs to step up oversight of meat packing plants

While manufacturers take steps to improve the vaccination rate of their employees, the US Government Accountability Office is pressuring USDA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to strengthen protections for wage earners at meat and poultry plants.

Before the pandemic in November 2017, GAO recommended the agencies assess their joint memo of understanding regarding worker safety at meat and poultry plants and make changes as needed and establish periodic reviews of the MOU.

As of March 2021, GAO writes in a letter sent July 1​, USDA had reviewed and updated a draft of the MOU, but that the Food Safety and Inspection Service still needed to assess implementation of the MOU and set regular revaluations of the agreement to protect worker safety.

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