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Tyson Foods, one of the country’s biggest meat processors and the site of serious COVID-19 outbreaks earlier in the pandemic, announced Tuesday that it will mandate the coronavirus vaccine for its entire U.S. workforce.
“We did not take this decision lightly,” Donnie King, the president and CEO of Tyson, said in a memo to workers, which the company shared in a press release Tuesday. “We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated–today, under half of our team members are.”
To be sure, half of Tyson’s U.S. workforce amounts to more than 56,000 employees. But the Springdale, Arkansas-based company, like many other employers across the nation, likely doesn’t want to risk more outbreaks at a time when its infection rates are otherwise low.
The highly contagious Delta variant is threatening the country’s economic recovery, while officials and health care workers in the southern red states where Tyson has big plants—including Arkansas, Iowa, and Missouri—seem to be panicking. After Arkansas set a record for coronavirus hospitalizations this week, the state’s governor said on Twitter: “Hospitals are full & the only remedy is for more Arkansans to be vaccinated.” And one public health official in an Iowa county warned that it wasn’t a question of whether unvaccinated people would get sick, but when and how badly.
Tyson claimed that its directive will make it the “largest U.S. food company to require COVID-19 vaccinations for its entire workforce,” though the company is hardly alone in mandating the shot as the country’s control over the virus slips away. Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, recently mandated the vaccine for some employees, as did Google, the Walt Disney Company, and the Washington Post.
But what seemingly makes Tyson unique is that its rule extends not just to white-collar workers, but to vulnerable front-line employees. Meat processing plants have been historically staffed mostly by immigrant workers, and some immigrant communities have reportedly been skeptical of the shot, or face barriers in accessing the vaccine at all.
And Tyson’s plants, similar to other meat-packing facilities, were among the most scrutinized work sites during the height of the pandemic, with workers alleging that they felt forced to report to their jobs even when ill. At one point, managers at a Tyson Iowa plant were also accused of betting on how many workers would get sick from the virus; the managers were later fired.
Tyson’s leadership has to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 24, King said in his memo; office workers have until Oct. 1, while “all other team members” need to be inoculated by Nov. 1. (For union employees, the company notes, this will depend on bargaining results.) New hires have to get the shot before their start date.
Those described as “frontline team members” will get $200 “for doing your part to keep us safe, subject to ongoing discussions with our unions,” King said.