Several worker advocacy organizations have filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging that meat processing companies Tyson Foods and JBS have engaged in racial discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic.
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The complaint filed Wednesday alleges the companies adopted policies that violate a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects individuals from racial discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance.
Tyson has received more than $109 million from USDA programs this year and JBS more than $45 million, the complaint said. As recipients of federal taxpayer dollars they are required to comply with federal laws.
“When they took that money, they knew at that point that they would be held accountable to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but they continued to violate that act,” said Joe Henry, director of Forward Latino, one of the groups filing the complaint.
Coronavirus infections were first reported in meatpacking plants in March and since then at least 32,151 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed among workers in 291 plants, and at least 122 meatpacking workers have died, the complaint said.
A CDC report released Tuesday found 87 percent of those coronavirus cases occurred among people of color even though they make up just 61 percent of the worker population.
The report released Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined more than 16,000 COVID-19 cases at 239 plants in 21 states. It offers perspective on how the virus devastated U.S. pork, beef and poultry processing plants, but the figures likely understate the problem as Iowa officials declined to participate in the study.
Iowa is the nation’s largest pork-producing state and saw severe coronavirus outbreaks at several huge processing plants.
The CDC noted that Iowa was among the states that didn’t contribute coronavirus-related meat processing plant data. Iowa is the nation’s leading pork producer and has about a dozen large-scale meat processing plants. Many had outbreaks sickening hundreds of workers. The Iowa Department of Public Health did not respond to a message seeking comment on why the state didn’t provide the CDC with data.
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“The effects of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minority groups are not yet fully understood; however, current data indicate a disproportionate burden of illness and death among these populations,” the CDC said. “Ongoing efforts to reduce incidence and better understand the effects of COVID-19 on the health of racial and ethnic minorities are important to ensure that workplace-specific prevention strategies and intervention messages are tailored to those groups most affected by COVID-19.”
After the outbreaks were uncovered, meatpacking plants began providing workers with face coverings, installed shields between work stations and implemented new procedures for distancing during breaks, but they declined to adopt other CDC recommendations for keeping people at least 6 feet apart. The companies also declined to initiate slower speeds on production lines or add shifts to enable social distancing, the complaint said.
The complaint alleges the operating procedures have a disparate impact on Black, Latino and Asian workers, who make up a large share of production workers at the companies’ plants, representing a pattern or practice of racial discrimination.
Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said in an email the company was still reviewing the complaint and noted the company’s top priority is the health and safety of all workers, their families and the communities where plants are located.
“We’ve transformed the way our plants operate to protect our team members, implementing measures such as symptom screening before every shift,” he said.
A total of 122 food justice, labor rights, animal welfare and environmental justice groups wrote a stern letter earlier this week to Tyson Foods investors demanding the company be made accountable and protect its workers at its chicken, pork and beef processing facilities nationwide from the coronavirus.
Tyson Foods spokesman Derek Burleson gave a statement earlier this week about conditions in the company regarding treatment of its workers. “Our top priority is the well-being of our team members, their families and our communities, and we are doing everything we can to keep them safe and healthy," he said. "From early in the pandemic, we took numerous protective measures at our facilities to prevent the spread of the virus, and we continue to explore innovations such as new mask designs and contact tracing technology to make our workplaces even safer. We view testing as a tool for protecting our workers and believe we have conducted more testing than any other company in our industry. We have proactively disclosed verified test results, in coordination with local public health officials, and believe the data helps us all understand how to protect our team members and communities. Working closely with health officials and other medical experts, we continue to assess our overall approach to this virus and to determine the best ways to keep our team members healthy.”
JBS did not immediately reply to messages and a USDA spokesman declined to comment.
The complaint goes to the USDA through an administrative procedure and it will be up to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to decide how it’s resolved. The procedure could result in an agreement between the worker groups, the USDA and the companies, or it could take years to get to a final resolution if there’s no agreement, said Dave O’Brien, a civil rights attorney in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who handled such complaints in the Obama administration’s Labor Department.
The complaint filed on Wednesday asks the Civil Rights Division of the USDA to investigate and remedy the discrimination and for the agency to suspended or terminate funding to the companies if they do not comply with federal laws.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.