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Tyson reinstates policy that penalizes absentee workers

Deena Shanker and Jen Skerritt
Bloomberg

Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat processor, will return to its pre-coronavirus absentee policy, which includes punishing employees for missing work due to illness. Workers with Covid-19 symptoms won’t be penalized, the company said.

“We’re reinstating our standard attendance policy,” Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson said in an email. “But our position on Covid-19 has not changed: Workers who have symptoms of the virus or have tested positive will continue to be asked to stay home and will not be penalized. They will also continue to qualify for short-term disability pay so they can continue to be paid while they’re sick.”

This April 27, 2020, file photo shows a Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Emporia, Kan.

In mid-March, Tyson said that it was “relaxing attendance policies in our plants by eliminating any punitive effect for missing work due to illness.” That will no longer be the case, as the company shifts back to its usual policy that discourages absenteeism through a point system.

Some of America’s largest meat suppliers reopened plants recently after a wave of coronavirus outbreaks forced temporarily closures in April, withering available supplies at grocery stores and driving up retail prices for beef and pork. While companies have taken measures such as increasing hand-washing stations, distributing face shields and doing temperature checks, experts and unions warn that workers are still being put in harm’s way in the name of food security as packers seek to boost output.

Workers absenteeism has been high in some U.S. plants not just because employees are sick. Some are afraid to come in for shifts because of fears they will catch the virus. Under Tyson’s policy, staying home for fear of exposure could result in punitive measures.

Physical distancing is nearly impossible in plants that operate processing lines at very fast speeds. There have been at least 44 meatpacking worker deaths and over 3,000 workers testing positive for Covid-19, according to estimates from United Food & Commercial Workers International Union.

“It is irresponsible to move away from strong protections, paid sick leave, and attendance policies that support worker well-being and public health goals,” said Mary Beth Gallagher, executive director of Investor Advocates for Social Justice. “Instead, it appears the incentives and attendance policies further business objectives that may be out of step with keeping workers safe.”

Tyson reiterated that its “position on Covid-19 has not changed,” in an emailed statement.

“Team members who test positive for the virus or have Covid-19 symptoms receive paid leave and may return to work only when they’ve met the criteria established by both the CDC and Tyson.”

On Tuesday, Tyson confirmed 591 positive Covid-19 cases out of 2,303 tested employees at its Storm Lake, Iowa, plant, which was shuttered last week. Limited production at the facility will resume on June 3, the company said, while separately confirming 224 positive cases out of its 1,483 employees at its Council Bluffs, Iowa plant.

Mickelson also noted the steps the company has taken to slow the spread of the virus at its plants. These measures include pre-shift temperature checks, providing masks to workers, and creating physical barriers between workstations.

(Updates with analyst comment, additional Tyson comment starting in seventh paragraph)

2020 Bloomberg L.P.