Pre-virus attendance policy back at Tyson

Workers with symptoms are exception

Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. meat processor, reverted to a policy this week that penalizes absentee workers, with an exception for those with coronavirus symptoms.

According to a letter sent to processing plant employees in Albany, Ky., Tyson said that it would be reinstating its pre-coronavirus attendance policy on Monday.

"If you are out of work due to a positive covid-19 test, or have documented clinical symptoms consistent with covid-19 you will not be assigned attendance points," the letter said. Tyson plant employees can be fired for accumulating too many points for missing work.

Tyson did not immediately comment Wednesday about whether the policy is being applied at all of its processing facilities.

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"Workers who have symptoms of the virus or have tested positive will continue to be asked to stay home and will not be penalized," Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said in an email Wednesday. They also will continue qualifying for short-term disability pay so they can continue being paid while they're sick, he said.

In mid-March, Tyson said it was "relaxing attendance policies in our plants by eliminating any punitive effect for missing work due to illness."

According to Tyson employees in Northwest Arkansas, Tyson is returning to its previous policy because it claims to have done everything to protect its workers and "they should not be afraid to miss work," said Magaly Licolli, co-founder of Venceremos, a poultry worker advocacy group.

"By them pulling back the punitive system policies, it's very inhumane at a time where workers feel unsafe," she said.

The state's coronavirus numbers have been rising as the number of tests increases, with hundreds of positive cases coming from Northwest Arkansas and the region's chicken plants.

Statewide, there were 412 active infections linked to poultry businesses and nearly 72% of those who tested positive are Hispanic, according to a coronavirus job cluster report issued Tuesday by the Arkansas Department of Health. More than half of those active cases came from Benton and Washington counties. Tyson said it knew of 77 cases at its plants throughout the state as of Monday.

In the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metro area, Tyson had 14 active cases at its Chick-N-Quick plant in Rogers, seven active cases at its Berry Street Plant in Springdale and seven at its Elm Street plant in Rogers, the Department of Health's report said Tuesday.

Licolli said the pandemic has put an emotional and mental toll on the company's workers and reinstating the standard absentee policy is a way to punish workers and keep supply running.

"That is totally unacceptable," she said.

Mickelson said in an email that the company has taken several measures since January to protect its workers, including collaborating with health officials to make sure its processing plants meet or exceed federal guidelines. An executive order was signed in late April to keep meat plants running after thousands of U.S. workers tested positive for the virus, resulting in several temporary plant closures from Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill and others.

"Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, their families and their communities," Mickelson said.

Business on 06/04/2020