Despite new coronavirus outbreaks at its Iowa plants, Tyson Foods resumes attendance policy

Despite new coronavirus outbreaks at its Iowa plants, Tyson Foods resumes attendance policy

Tyson Foods is reinstating an attendance policy that punishes workers for missing shifts, even as it reports new COVID-19 outbreaks in its Iowa meatpacking plants.

Company spokeswoman Liz Croston confirmed to the Des Moines Register on Wednesday that Tyson Foods is returning to the policy it had put on hold in mid-March, when the coronavirus began spreading rapidly through closely spaced workers on the meatpacking lines at Iowa processing plants.

Under the policy, employees are assessed points for missing shifts. Those who accumulate too many can be fired.

When it announced what it called an "adjustment" in the policy March 18, Tyson said it was doing so ”to encourage team members to take the proper steps in the event of illness or lack of child care.”

In photos provided by Tyson Meats, the company installed clear dividers at work stations in the plant, show here at the boneless loin line table.

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Croston said Tyson will still excuse absences by employees who have tested positive for coronavirus or have symptoms of COVID-19. She added that the company has tried to slow the spread of the virus in its plants since mid-March through measures including taking employees' temperatures, equipping them with masks and gloves, and placing acrylic barriers between their work stations.

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

A spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents employees at multiple Tyson Foods plants in Iowa, did not return an email and call Wednesday seeking comment on the decision.

League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa political director Joe Henry, who works with meatpacking employees across the state, criticized the company's decision. He said many employees are still uncomfortable returning to work.

"Going back to any prior attendance policy is the wrong move to make, especially with the continued outbreak with (Tyson) facilities and other facilities across the state," he said. "You can’t do that."

Tyson Foods on Tuesday reported two new coronavirus outbreaks at Iowa plants. It said 591 of 2,300 employees at its Storm Lake pork processing plant had tested positive, as did 224 of 1,500 workers at its beef and pork processing plant in Council Bluffs.

According to USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, there have been at least 20,000 coronavirus cases linked to meatpacking plants across the country. There also have been at least 73 worker deaths.

About 3,000 meatpackers have tested positive for the virus in Iowa, more than in any other state. According to the analysis, about 6,700 Tyson Foods employees across the country have contracted COVID-19, more than double the number for any other company.

State officials have not robustly reported coronavirus cases at Iowa plants. Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said last week that government officials would only disclose outbreaks if reporters directly asked about them.

On Tuesday, Reisetter reversed course, announcing that state officials are working on a "systematic" way to report coronavirus cases linked to meatpacking plants.

At Smithfield Foods, another large meatpacking company that has been hit with a coronavirus outbreak, spokesman Reid Spencer said in a statement Wednesday that "any non-COVID-19 related absence is subject to our standard attendance policy."

The company, which had about 900 cases at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant in April, is providing sick leave to anyone who tests positive for the virus or who came in close contact with someone who tested positive, Spencer said.

Smithfield Foods employees who are older than 60 or who have diagnosed, underlying conditions that make COVID-19 especially dangerous also receive paid leave.

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Register. Contact him at 515-284-8215 and Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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