Union: Poultry industry’s slow response is killing workers

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

(Editor’s note: Tyson workers are represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The union recently issued the following press release.)

Today, (March 7) the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents thousands of poultry processing workers across the southern United States, condemned the industry for its slow response to COVID-19. 

Over the past month, the RWDSU has been imploring poultry industry employers like Tyson Foods, Equity Foods, JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride, Koch Foods and Wayne Farms to implement critical standards to protect workers’ safety and to secure the food supply chain. The industry’s response for the most part has only been recent, sporadic and limited to a few locations, leaving most workers unprotected - despite months-long demands from the RWDSU. Poultry workers at their plants have been dying.

For small towns like Albany, Georgia, it’s too little too late. Albany has the second largest outbreak of COVID-19 in Georgia. The town is home to workers from a number of nearby poultry facilities that feed Americans across the country. This community, like much of the South, will face an uphill battle when it comes to protecting its residents from COVID-19. Many suffer from long-term health issues, including respiratory issues, which have proven fatal when the virus is contracted. 

At the Tyson facility in Camilla, Georgia, where the RWDSU represents 2,000 members, two members have died from the virus and many are sick or in quarantine. Tyson employs a largely black workforce that commutes from Albany, Georgia and surrounding cities to the facility daily. Workers debone chickens elbow to elbow with no access to masks. They work at speeds of upwards of 80 chickens per minute, while upper management, largely white and clad in protective gear, oversees production. 

Sadly Camilla, Georgia, isn’t the only place affected. Shelbyville, Tennessee; Carthage, Mississippi; and other communities across the South are suffering due to Tyson’s delayed distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers and the delayed implementation of social distancing protocols, protective barriers, and staggered start times and breaks. Perhaps most astonishing, the company offered workers a $500 bonus, but the bonus is tied to attendance and won’t be paid out until July. Workers deserve a no-strings attached bonus now and premium pay for the additional risks to their health and the health of their families as they ensure continuity of our nation’s food supply for all of our families. 

While the company has pledged to do better, and has started this week to share PPE with workers, put up protective barriers at some facilities, and pledged to pay union workers for time in quarantine, the fact is it’s too little too late. Workers are dying. This is inexcusable for America’s largest meat producer, which makes $40 billion in annual revenue. Yet, Tyson is just one example of an industry that is acting too late to protect a generation of workers that is feeding America during this crisis. 

The RWDSU represents workers across the entire U.S. supply chain, including food processing at iconic American household brands like Quaker Oats, General Mills, Post, Gerber, and Coca-Cola, to name a few. Outside of the poultry industry, those companies seem to be getting it right with a few outliers, ensuring workers have the space they need, premium pay, and PPE.

The poultry industry as a whole is getting it wrong, and the consequences of its slow response are fatal for too many RWDSU members. 

The RWDSU demands the poultry industry take swift action 

The poultry industry has both a contractual and legal responsibility to provide a safe and healthy work environment for its employees. The RWDSU intends to ensure that its companies comply with their legal and contractual obligations in this regard. Accordingly, facilities must notify the RWDSU, local representative union and workforce immediately when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. The companies need to provide:

• The department(s) and shift(s) worked by the employees testing positive for COVID- 19. This is a continuing request for information if other employees test positive for the COVID-19 virus.

• The names of all employees who worked in those department(s) and shift(s) on days when the COVID-19 positive employees last worked.

• The date or dates last worked by the employees testing positive for the COVID-19 virus.

• Number of workers who failed the temperature check and were sent home. These workers should be paid at their regular rate of pay.

In addition to the requested information, the RWDSU demands that the poultry industry take the following actions in order to protect the health and safety of workers at all poultry facilities:

• Immediately shut down for a minimum of 72 hours the department(s) in which the COVID-19 positive employees worked and clean and sanitize the department in accordance with CDC recommended guidelines. Workers in these departments should be paid at their regular rate of pay during the duration of the cleaning.

• Pursuant to CDC guidelines, require that any employee who worked in the same department(s) and shift(s) with the COVID-19 positive employees quarantine for 14 consecutive days. The RWDSU demands that the employees be paid during this period of quarantine at their regular rate of pay.

• Provide proper PPE for all employees including but not limited to gloves, masks, face shields, smocks and other appropriate PPE in order to prevent any transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

• Install Plexiglass shielding between workstations, especially on the deboning lines where poultry companies are currently forcing employees to work shoulder to shoulder without proper PPE.

• Employers should set a schedule to ensure that all frequently touched surfaces are sanitized on a regular basis during the work day.

As this pandemic grows and wreaks havoc to our states, cities and communities, it takes great courage for workers to leave the safety of their homes to go to work, and in so doing, ensuring continuity of the nation’s food system. All essential workers deserve premium pay. It is absolutely perverse at this time to tie bonus or additional pay benefits to attendance. 

Furthermore, vulnerable members of the workforce with underlying health conditions or over the age of 60 should be given the choice to take paid leave and not jeopardize their lives at this critical time.