COVID-19 Deaths In Tyson Factory Show Company Not Taking Worker Safety Seriously: Activists

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(ATLANTA, GA) – In response to reports that three RWDSU Southeast Council members have succumbed to COVID-19 at the Tyson poultry processing facility in Camilla, Georgia, Edgar Fields, President of the Southeast Council of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) issued the following statement:

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Statement On Tyson COVID-19 Deaths

“We are heartbroken.

“Generation after generation of our members are hidden from public view in small town America's poultry plants. They often work for corporations who feel they have the right to continue to treat them without the dignity, respect and wages that they more than deserve. Let me be clear, RWDSU members are not expendable, they are critical to putting food on America’s dinner tables, and above all else they are hard working people who didn’t sign up to die on the front lines of a pandemic in this country, and they shouldn’t be dying needlessly. The truth is our members have been terrified to go to work for weeks.

“On April 1, after pleas from across our union to Tyson and other poultry processors to protect our members, we lost our first member to COVID-19. Elose Wills, a proud RWDSU member for 35 years, lost her life because a corporation that makes billions in annual profits acted too slowly to install the proper protections that she and 2,000 of her co-workers at Tyson needed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our eyes haven’t been dry since.

“When we lost Elose Wills, we widely reported what conditions have been like at the Tyson facility, in the hopes management would make real changes. Over the past two weeks they have made some, but I am deeply saddened to report that it was precisely what we feared, too little too late.

“We can confirm that we’ve lost three members at Tyson in Camilla, Georgia. In addition to Elose Willis, we’ve lost Mary Holt a 27 year member of the RWDSU, and Annie Grant a 13 year member of the RWDSU.

“I want to reiterate, what’s happening in Camilla, Georgia is a clear example of how not to do things. It’s too little too late here, and I hope sharing our story will help stop other communities from being exploited by corporate America. When I speak to our members I hear real fear in their voices, and their voices must continue to be heard,” said Edgar Fields, President of the Southeast Council of the RWDSU, which represents 10,000 workers across the southeastern United States, many in food processing and distribution. 

More information about the three lives lost due to COVID-19 at Tyson in Camilla, Georgia, represented by the RWDSU Southeast Council: 

  • Elose Willis served as Secretary of Local 938, representing poultry workers at Tyson in Camilla, Georgia. She was a proud and committed member of the RWDSU and worked at the facility for 35 years.  She passed away due to COVID-19 on April 1, 2020.
  • Mary Holt was a member of Local 938 of the RWDSU Southeast Council and worked the poultry line at the Camilla, Georgia Tyson plant for 27 years. She was a member of the RWDSU Southeast Council. She passed away April 6 from COVID-19 complications.
  • Annie Grant was a member of Local 938 of the RWDSU Southeast Council. For 13 years, Ms. Grant worked at the Tyson plant in Camilla, Georgia. She passed on April 7 due to the coronavirus. Grant worked tirelessly at Tyson’s poultry plant in Camilla, to provide a future for her children.

Earlier this month President Fields joined his colleagues from across the RWDSU to condemn the industry for its slow response to COVID-19.

Additional information, previously provided to Tyson COVID-19 deaths:

Over the past month, the RWDSU has been calling on poultry industry employers to implement critical standards to protect workers’ safety and to secure the food supply chain. The industry’s response for the most part has only been recent, sporadic and limited to a few locations, leaving most workers unprotected - despite months-long demands from the RWDSU. Poultry workers at their plants have been dying.

For small towns like Albany, Georgia, it’s too little too late. Albany has the second largest outbreak of COVID-19 in Georgia. The town is home to workers from a number of nearby poultry facilities that feed Americans across the country. This community, like much of the South, will face an uphill battle when it comes to protecting its residents from COVID-19. Many suffer from long-term health issues, including respiratory issues, which have proven fatal when the virus is contracted.

At the Tyson facility in Camilla, Georgia, where the RWDSU represents 2,000 members, three members have died from the virus and many are sick or in quarantine. Tyson employs a largely black workforce that commutes from Albany, Georgia and surrounding cities to the facility daily. Workers debone chickens elbow to elbow. They work at speeds of upwards of 80 chickens per minute.

While the company has pledged to do better, and has started to share PPE with workers, put up protective barriers at some facilities, and pledged to pay union workers for time in quarantine, the fact is it’s too little too late. Workers are dying. This is inexcusable for America’s largest meat producer, which makes $40 billion in annual revenue. Yet, Tyson is just one example of an industry that is acting too late to protect a generation of workers that is feeding America during this crisis.

The RWDSU represents workers across the entire U.S. supply chain, including food processing at iconic American household brands like Quaker Oats, General Mills, Post, Gerber, and Coca-Cola, to name a few. Outside of the poultry industry, those companies seem to be getting it right with a few outliers, ensuring workers have the space they need, premium pay, and PPE.

The poultry industry as a whole is getting it wrong, and the consequences of its slow response are fatal for too many RWDSU members.

The RWDSU continues to demand the poultry industry take swift action:

  • The poultry industry has both a contractual and legal responsibility to provide a safe and healthy work environment for its employees. The RWDSU intends to ensure that its companies comply with their legal and contractual obligations in this regard.
  • Accordingly, facilities must notify the RWDSU, local representative union and workforce immediately when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. The companies need to provide:
    • The department(s) and shift(s) worked by the employees testing positive for COVID- 19. This is a continuing request for information if other employees test positive for the COVID-19 virus.
    • The names of all employees who worked in those department(s) and shift(s) on days when the COVID-19 positive employees last worked.
    • The date or dates last worked by the employees testing positive for the COVID-19 virus.
    • Number of workers who failed the temperature check and were sent home. These workers should be paid at their regular rate of pay.
  • In addition to the requested information, the RWDSU demands that the poultry industry take the following actions in order to protect the health and safety of workers at all poultry facilities.
    • Immediately shut down for a minimum of 72 hours the department(s) in which the COVID-19 positive employees worked and clean and sanitize the department in accordance with CDC recommended guidelines. Workers in these departments should be paid at their regular rate of pay during the duration of the cleaning.
    • Pursuant to CDC guidelines, require that any employee who worked in the same department(s) and shift(s) with the COVID-19 positive employees quarantine for 14 consecutive days. The RWDSU demands that the employees be paid during this period of quarantine at their regular rate of pay.
    • Provide proper PPE for all employees including but not limited to gloves, masks, face shields, smocks and other appropriate PPE in order to prevent any transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
    • Install Plexiglass shielding between workstations, especially on the deboning lines where poultry companies are currently forcing employees to work shoulder to shoulder without proper PPE.
    • Employers should set a schedule to ensure that all frequently touched surfaces are sanitized on a regular basis during the work day.
  • As this pandemic grows and wreaks havoc to our states, cities and communities, it takes great courage for workers to leave the safety of their homes to go to work, and in so doing, ensuring continuity of the nation’s food system. All essential workers deserve premium pay. It is absolutely perverse at this time to tie bonus or additional pay benefits to attendance.
  • Furthermore, vulnerable members of the workforce with underlying health conditions or over the age of 60 should be given the choice to take paid leave and not jeopardize their lives at this critical time.