GUEST COMMENTARY: Worker rights advocate says poultry giant should do better for its employees

I recently stood alongside former poultry workers and allies outside Tyson Foods' headquarters in Springdale to urge the corporation's executives to take responsibility for the health and safety of their employees. We delivered petitions with hundreds of signatures from workers and thousands from advocates demanding that the corporation create stronger protections and ensure all employees are compensated fairly.

One worker held up a sign: "How many billions more do we need to produce for you to respect our humanity?"

For over a year, since the start of the pandemic, I received calls from workers every day letting me know they were terrified to see how quickly their coworkers were getting infected with covid. They said the company failed to notify workers who had been exposed to covid or allow them to quarantine. Soon, the outbreaks spread so quickly that the company lost much of its workforce, so it increased line speeds to keep up its production levels, cramming workers closer together and making conditions more dangerous. Many also had to complete jobs and operate equipment they were not trained for, creating a severe safety hazard. Throughout it all, workers only had a 20-minute break every eight hours, which wasn't enough time for them to eat and go to the bathroom, let alone rest for a moment.

While Tyson has advertised its commitment to protecting their workers from the pandemic, their so-called solutions are mostly lip service and do little to protect workers. For instance, the scanners that Tyson uses to screen workers for covid-19 fail to detect asymptomatic cases, and the social distancing measures and partitions that are supposed to protect line workers do not apply to break rooms and restrooms. Instead of investing in basic improvements to fundamentally improve safety conditions at facilities, the company dedicated thousands of dollars to a splashy lottery-style program to incentivize workers to get vaccinated.

So when Tyson recently announced expansions to paid sick leave and wage raises, I was skeptical that it was anything more than another publicity stunt. Once you look at the fine print, it's clear that the change is just for show. Many workers will only be eligible for a 20-cent wage raise after a decade of working at the company! Vaccinated workers have to wait until 2022 to begin earning paid sick leave, which will amount to no more than 20 hours a year. That's only 2.5 days in a year, barely enough time to recover from a cold, let alone quarantine for the recommended time after a potential covid exposure. And for employees who can't get vaccinated because of underlying health conditions, that means no paid sick leave at all. Tyson is forcing its employees to choose between missing a day of pay, when many employees are living paycheck to paycheck due to low wages, or going into work while sick. This is not only cruel, it endangers the health of other workers, their families and all of Arkansas.

People are struggling all over our state right now, and Tyson workers are no exception. They need and deserve a real wage increase of $4, not a 20-cent insult. The fact that I hear regularly from Tyson workers that they can't take water and bathroom breaks when they need to is inexcusable. They should not fear of losing their job while being sick because of Tyson's stringent point system, and a guarantee that they will only be required to work with equipment and processes they've been safely trained for. As long as workers' demands are ignored, Tyson will continue to announce false solutions and half measures, and continue to try to undermine workers' legitimate claims. Workers need to be represented in decision-making on the policies that impact them. Without a seat at the table, the cycle of worker exploitation will continue and Tyson will bolster its public reputation with splashy announcements without fundamentally changing the way workers are treated.

It's time for all of us in Arkansas to demand that Tyson respect its employees, comply with basic labor protections and engage with the worker leaders who are fighting for the health and safety of our community.