SPRINGDALE, Ark. – When Tyson, one of the world’s largest meat packers, announced in early August that all of its 120,000 employees should be vaccinated against the coronavirus or lose their jobs, Diana Eike was angry. Ms. Eike, the company’s administrative coordinator, had resisted the vaccine, and not for religious or political reasons like many others here in her home country.
“It was just something personal,” she said.
Now Mrs. Eike is fully immunized and she is relieved that Tyson made the decision for her. The company, she said, “took the burden off me of making the choice.”
Across the country, workers have reacted to the vaccination warrants with a mixture of emotions. Employer requirements come into effect without major controversy in many areas. But in some cities, officials marched through the streets in protest, while others resigned. Many companies, fearing a wave of resignations, have hesitated on mandates even as they grapple with new coronavirus outbreaks.
Tyson’s announcement that he would require vaccinations at its offices, packing plants, and poultry factories, many of which are located in the South and Midwest where vaccine resistance is high, was arguably the mandate. most daring in the corporate world.
“We made the decision to do the warrant knowing full well that we were putting our business at risk,” Tyson chief executive Donnie King said in an interview last week. “It was very painful to do.”
But it was also bad for business when Tyson had to shut down its facilities due to virus outbreaks. Since the policy was announced, approximately 60,500 employees have received the vaccine and more than 96 percent of its workforce is vaccinated.
Tyson’s experience shows how compelling workplace vaccination mandates can be. It comes as many employers wait for the start of Biden’s administration rules that will require vaccines – or weekly testing – at companies with 100 or more workers.
Tyson’s aggressive push on vaccines also marks a significant turning point for a company that was criticized early in the pandemic for failing to adequately protect workers at its factories. Its low-paid workers typically stand shoulder to shoulder to do the work of cutting, boning and packing meat, making them particularly vulnerable to the airborne virus.
Tyson, like other major meat packers, lobbied the Trump administration in 2020 to pass an executive order that essentially allows factories to remain open despite rising infections. The move follows a warning from Tyson chairman John Tyson, a shortage of meat in the United States, even as the company and other meat packers exported more pork to China than before the pandemic, a New York Times investigation found.
A recent congress report found that 151 Tyson employees died from the virus. The report says that at a factory in Amarillo, Texas, inspectors observed that many employees were working with “saturated” masks. At a pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, as dozens of workers fell ill and three died, local officials, including the county sheriff, said the company initially denied their demands for plant closure in spring 2020.
Tyson says he spent more than $ 810 million on Covid security measures and new on-site medical services. He performed plant-wide coronavirus testing and hired its first chief medical officer.
And vaccines have brought a new tool to protect employees, while keeping company factories open.
“It was a business decision,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union, which represents thousands of workers at Tyson’s poultry plants, of the tenure. . “There aren’t enough workers to take the place if a large number of workers get sick. “
Mr King began to consider a tenure during his July 4 vacation – “the worst vacation of my life,” he said – as the Delta variant popped up across the country. He had only taken office a month later, having unexpectedly taken over in June as Tyson’s fifth general manager in five years. Mr. King wears a red heart on his jacket inspired by the book “Love Works”, encouraging managers to “lead with love”.
Most business leaders don’t like to be the first to take bold action, or to do so without data to back it up. Tyson rolled out the requirements when the handful of companies announcing warrants focused primarily on office workers – who were statistically more likely to be vaccinated than factory workers.
Upon returning from vacation, King called Tyson’s management team for two weeks of discussion. The company consulted with outside experts, including the Centers for Disease Control, infectious disease specialists, and emergency room professionals.
He modeled the vaccination rate he thought he could achieve and the number of employees who might quit. “We literally counted the cost,” King said.
At that point, the company had been talking to its employees for six months since the vaccines became available, trying to figure out what made nearly half of those who hadn’t been vaccinated resistant.
“We already knew this vaccine was very polarizing in the community,” King said. “Part is religious, part is related to medical issues – but part is, ‘I just don’t want you telling me what to do. “
Tyson’s workforce is extraordinarily diverse: there are Burmese refugees, immigrants from the Pacific Islands, and many black and Hispanic employees who work in the company’s pork, beef and poultry factories. The company has asked doctors serving specific ethnic communities to speak with employees as a group or individually about the safety of the vaccine.
At a factory in Camilla, Georgia, Dexrea Dennard, a member of the Retail and Wholesale Stores Union, was initially upset that Tyson had made vaccination mandatory. “I felt our rights were being violated,” she said.
Mrs. Dennard had seen the effects of the disease up close. Her brother contracted the virus at the start of the pandemic and was on a ventilator for 30 days. A number of workers have died at the factory where she worked, a 15-minute drive in Albany, one of the outbreak’s earliest epicenters.
“In my community, you know, we have a lot of deaths,” Ms. Dennard said. “I thought about what my brother had been through and overcame – and I just felt it was time for me to do what I needed to do, regarding my daughter, who is 10 years old, who doesn’t. cannot be vaccinated. “
Ms Dennard decided to get the vaccine after speaking with a doctor the company brought in to discuss her time treating Covid-19 patients.
“And once I got it, a lot of my coworkers who felt a little bit funny about it – they got it later,” she said.
Others never got the hang of it. Monday was the last day of work for Calvin Miller, who worked in dry storage at a Tyson plant in Sedalia, Missouri, where the local vaccination rate is 46%. Mr Miller, who worked for Tyson for 12 years, said he felt ‘betrayed’ by the tenure: ‘A lot of good workers and long-tenured workers have lost their jobs because they didn’t. not trust the vaccine, ”he said. He plans to look for a job in retail, although he won’t pay as much as the base rate of $ 17.20 an hour he earned at Tyson, he said. The complex in which the Sedalia plant operates is now 96 percent vaccinated.
The company said “a very limited number” of employees resigned during the tenure. There are still approximately 4,000 unvaccinated American workers employed by Tyson who have been granted religious or medical exemptions, or who were previously on unrelated leave. Some of those exempted were transferred to a position that allowed them to socially distance themselves. Others have been put on leave.
Six employees sued Tyson, claiming it violated Tennessee law by placing workers with such exemptions on unpaid leave. The case is pending.
Mr King said he received comments from workers in emails and text messages.
“I wanted to know what people were thinking,” he said. Some comments were angry. “I received a death threat posted on a bathroom wall in one of our factories,” he said.
To help clarify that the mandate was to keep workers safe, Tyson needed the support of his larger unions, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union and the United Workers’ Union of food and trade. In return for their support, Tyson agreed to offer more benefits to all workers, like paid sick leave.
“People who run large companies think in two areas: what is best for my employees and what is best to keep the business going? Said William Schaffner, infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University. “And in this case, the two fit together beautifully.”
As the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations increased over the summer, Ms Eike, Tyson’s administrative coordinator in Springdale, began to question her decision not to get the vaccine. Around the same time, King announced the company’s tenure, leaving him no choice. After Ms Eike received the vaccine, her adult son, who had suffered a head trauma that made her fearful, received one. She now believes that, given the stakes, her resistance had been “selfish”.
“I kind of fought,” she said, “and I wonder, why did it take someone else to help me see this?”