Guest commentary: Workers pay a price in poultry business

As Tyson shareholders gather in Springdale on Friday, they will celebrate a banner year in a thriving industry: in November, Tyson Foods forecast record profits, sending its shares soaring to an all-time high in December.

While this is great news for shareholders, and our local economy, there is more to the story. The poultry industry is, in fact, thriving on the backs of thousands of workers, who stand on the processing lines in the cold for hour after hour every day, hanging and trimming and packing millions of chickens.

The Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center recently surveyed 500 poultry workers from a variety of companies in Arkansas, and found that working in the poultry industry is difficult, dirty and dangerous. The industry relies on populations that are economically desperate and vulnerable; of roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the US, most are minorities, immigrants, and refugees.

Maria is one of these workers. Until one day in June 2011, she had no problems with her health, or her job with Tyson in Arkansas. That morning, a chlorine leak in the plant changed everything. The gas damaged her lungs and her throat, leaving her with chronic asthma and reflux. To this day, she has two inhalers for her lungs, one for a nostril that doesn't work, and pills for reflux.

And now, she has no job. Last year, a specialist told her she can't work in the cold temperatures on the processing lines (which hovers around 40 degrees, to inhibit microbial growth in the chicken flesh); he wrote a note that requested a change in her position, authorizing the fact that she needed to be in warmer temperatures.

When she presented the note to the company, they told her they had no place for her. She is facing difficulties receiving workers' compensation benefits. Tyson's insurance carrier is denying payment for pulmonologist visits that correlate to her lung injury. She has to pay for her medicine out of her own pocket. After 13 years with Tyson, Maria has little to show but permanent damage to her health; she now has no job and no income.

Her story may be shocking but, sadly, it's not uncommon. In fact, many workers meet a similar fate every year.

This is work that chews up the body. Rates of injury and illness among poultry workers are five times higher than among all workers in the US. Dangers include amputations, cuts and lacerations; slips, trips, falls; respiratory hazards; and exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Most commonly, workers suffer musculoskeletal disorders from the repetitive motions on the line--from 20,000 to 100,000 per shift. Poultry workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome seven times more often than workers in other industries; they suffer occupational illnesses at five times the rate.

The Justice Center found that almost six in 10 workers have suffered from injuries or health problems while working in poultry. Most of these workers typically received no treatment or compensation for missed work; nearly 60 percent took no action after an injury. Over 90 percent have no access to earned sick leave; and 62 percent have gone to work while sick. 78 percent cannot afford the costs associated with their health care. These results confirm the findings of recent research by Oxfam America, which reports that the poultry industry is not doing enough to protect the health and safety of these workers. Instead, poultry companies aim to paint a portrait of declining incidents of injuries and illnesses, at the same time that they urge the federal government to increase maximum line speeds and push the workers even harder.

The line speed may also compromise workers' ability to take care of the food properly. Over half of the workers the Justice Center surveyed said that line speed and time pressure forced them to do things that might harm the health and safety of the consumer.

This is a booming industry that should do better by its workforce. Chicken is the most popular meat in America, and consumption grows every year. Arkansas processes nearly a billion chickens each year. Profits are climbing, consumer demand is growing, and executive compensation is increasing rapidly.

We hope the shareholders and the Board of Tyson will consider the people who do the hard work of hanging, trimming, cutting, and packaging these billions of pounds of chicken every day. People like Maria have given their time and sweat and health for this industry; the companies should do more to pay them back.

Commentary on 02/03/2016