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One Year Later, Many Poultry Workers Haven’t Seen COVID Protections

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More than 300 meatpacking and processing workers in the United States have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. (Adobe Stock)
More than 300 meatpacking and processing workers in the United States have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. (Adobe Stock)
 By Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - AR - Producer, Contact
February 23, 2021

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Workers say Tyson Foods and other poultry-processing plants haven't done enough to prevent Arkansas workers from getting sick as the pandemic hits its one-year mark.

Dozens of Tyson Foods workers in the state have died from COVID-19, and hundreds have contracted the virus and brought it home to their communities.

Public health experts say meat-processing plants in part drove the uptick in rural COVID-19 cases last year.

Magaly Licolli, executive director of the worker's rights group Venceremos, said a lack of transparency is causing more deaths.

"Workers still don't know how many cases are at the plant," Licolli explained. "They don't know if they were at risk of being in close contact to someone who is infected."

Poultry processing is the fifth largest employer in Arkansas, proving income to more than 163,000 people and generating billions of dollars each year.

Data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network shows so far, around 87,000 workers, most of whom are Black, Latino and Pacific Islander, have tested positive for COVID, and more than 300 have died.

Meanwhile, Licolli noted throughout the pandemic, Tyson Foods has lobbied the USDA to speed up animal slaughters.

The Biden administration recently denied and withdrew a pending rule that would have allowed that to happen.

She added poultry processors have put maintaining and even ramping up operations over worker safety.

"Investing millions in partitions that we have told them are not proven to contain the virus," Licolli contended. "They have instead refused to follow the CDC guidelines."

She pointed out repeated calls to the governor and other state officials to intervene have fallen on deaf ears.

"We actually did an action outside the Capitol, addressing a letter to [Gov.] Asa Hutchinson, and he refused to see us, refused to answer to that letter," Licolli asserted.

Earlier this month, Tyson Foods announced in a press release it was collaborating with the Cleveland Clinic to pilot a new program that "assesses, addresses, verifies and monitors the effectiveness of the company's efforts to protect workers from COVID-19."

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