Advocates Stress Education as Vaccine Becomes Available to Poultry Workers

Tyson Foods began offering on-site vaccination clinics at two facilities this week.

Tyson Vaccination Clinic
More than 1,100 team members were vaccinated during on-site clinics at Tyson facilities this week. Photo courtesy of Tyson Foods.

Arkansas poultry workers became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine last week and that’s welcome news to Venceremos, a worker-based organization working to ensure the human rights of employees in the poultry industry. Executive director Magaly Licolli said it was disappointing when these workers were not included in the initial priority group for vaccinations. 

“Healthcare workers, food workers have been on the frontlines of the pandemic and poultry workers have been at a high risk of getting infected with COVID, so for us, it was just a long time waiting,” Licolli said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report last July that examined COVID-19 outbreaks in meat and poultry processing plants in 23 states. The report cited 16,233 cases in 239 facilities. Among cases when race and ethnicity were reported, 87 percent occurred among racial or ethnic minorities. 

While it’s exciting for poultry workers to have access to the vaccination, Licolli is concerned about education. Venceremos is trying to collaborate with other groups to see what materials need to be developed in order to reach out to impacted communities. 

“It’s crucial that we build efforts in encouraging people to get vaccinated,” Licolli said.

Workers can be vaccinated at community clinics and pharmacies or through employer-organized clinics. Tyson Foods began offering free, on-site vaccination clinics this week to frontline workers in Arkansas where 20 percent of the company’s United States workforce is based. The vaccines are being provided in conjunction with the state health department, local health care providers and Matrix Medical Network, who has been providing on-site medical services at Tyson facilities during the pandemic.

Vaccination is not required, but it is highly encouraged, spokesman Derek Burleson said. While preparing for vaccine availability, Tyson has focused on education and access. For education, Burleson said the company has provided trusted information from the CDC and Matrix Medical, and translated it into various languages so employees “can make the decision that’s right for them.” Tyson is providing access by hosting vaccination clinics at its facilities.

“We’re prioritizing frontline workers and then after we’ve rolled out some of those on-site events, then we’ll begin to make the vaccine available to corporate employees,” Burleson said. 

The state has allocated thousands of doses of the single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine to Tyson, which were offered to employees this week. At the company’s prepared foods plant in Fayetteville, 435 of its 750 employees were vaccinated Tuesday. The Berry Street poultry facility in Springdale has 1,160 employees, 750 of which signed up for vaccinations Wednesday. 

Tyson is compensating workers for up to four hours of regular pay if they are vaccinated outside of their normal shift or through an external source. Feedback to the vaccination effort has been positive and based on surveys, the majority of team members are expected to be vaccinated, Burleson said.

“We plan to continue these on-site clinics throughout the state of Arkansas at our facilities and making those vaccines easily accessible to any team member that wants to receive one,” he said. 

Having access to the vaccine in the workplace has generated mixed reactions from poultry workers, Licolly said. 

“There’s been workers who are very enthusiastic about getting the vaccines and there’s other workers that are very doubtful about if right now Tyson is doing the right thing to protect workers because they haven’t protected workers for so long,” she said.

Venceremos has advocated for the safety of poultry workers since the start of the pandemic and Licolli said workers have expressed concern about lack of social distancing and contact tracing at facilities. Tyson’s response to the pandemic has included workstation dividers, social distance monitors and a testing strategy that involves testing employees with symptoms or those who have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive, Burleson said. 

“All those efforts are in the best interest of our team members because their health and safety is our number one priority,” he said.

Some workers remain hesitant about the vaccine and Licolli said it’s important to understand where they’re coming from. There are employees who feel like Tyson has intentionally exposed them to illness and therefore they have lost trust in the company, she said. 

“There is distrust and so that’s why I always talk about the importance of having access to vaccines at the workplace, but also outside the workplace because workers will probably feel more comfortable going outside the workplace, while others will feel [they have] easy access if they go to work and they get the vaccine there,” Licolli said.

For workers that prefer to be vaccinated at a local pharmacy or health center, assistance may be needed to help overcome some of the obstacles to making appointments. In addition to language barriers, Licolli said many don’t know how to navigate the registration websites.

“We need to create better ways for that community to get access to the vaccine,” she said.  

Additional on-site clinics at Tyson facilities will depend on vaccine supply and Burleson said they hope to schedule additional events as early as next week. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.