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Attendance policy forces meatpacking employees to work despite illness

Heather Schlitz
Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
For a few months earlier this year, as COVID case counts swelled, Tyson Foods suspended its point system, and Smithfield Foods said it has halted its version for the time being.

Editor's Note: This story is part of a collaborative reporting initiative between the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA TODAY Network and is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

In April, despite his fever, a meatpacking worker continued to carve neck bones out of pig carcasses at a JBS plant in Iowa.

Two weeks later, he would test positive for COVID-19. But in the meantime, he said, he kept clocking in because of a punitive attendance system widely used in meatpacking plants: the point system.

Under the policy, workers usually receive a point or points for missing a day. If they gain enough points, they’re fired.

For a few months earlier this year, as case counts swelled, Tyson Foods suspended its point system, and Smithfield Foods said it has halted its version for the time being.

However, the point system has endured at Tyson and JBS plants throughout the pandemic, and it has continued to coerce people with potential COVID-19 symptoms into showing up to work, said plant employees, their family members, activists and researchers.

“People are afraid now to lose points, and they start to go to work even when they’re sick,” Alfredo, a machine operator in a Tyson poultry plant in Arkansas, said through an interpreter. He asked to be identified only by his first name out of fear of retribution. 

“If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep working,” he continued. “If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home.”

Spokespeople for the country’s two biggest meat processing companies said employees are encouraged to stay home while ill.

“Our current attendance policy encourages our people to come to work when they’re healthy and instructs them to stay home with pay if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have tested positive for the virus,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said. 

“Regardless of our attendance policy, at no point during the pandemic have we assessed attendance points against team members for absences due to documented illness,” JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said.

Still, the point system has likely contributed to the virus’s spread, said Jose Oliva, co-founder of the HEAL Food Alliance, a non-profit that organizes food industry workers.

“It's probably one of the better propagators for the coronavirus that we've seen,” he said. “It's absolutely disastrous to have a point system in the midst of a pandemic.”

Workers at one Tyson plant and two JBS plants said the only way they can stay home without penalty is if they test positive for the disease. They are required to go to work if they’re waiting for test results, they said. 

Once he tested positive, the Iowa worker, 50, was allowed to miss work without racking up points, he said. He requested anonymity because he fears losing his job.

Complicating the situation is that many workers struggle to access testing or avoid COVID-19 tests due to the cost, wait times and fear of being targeted by immigration authorities, workers and advocates said.

The point system varies from plant to plant.

At the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, where about 300 workers have contracted the virus, employees can rack up six points before they’re fired, according to a document shared by the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. 

At a JBS plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, it’s seven points, and at a Tyson poultry plant in Arkansas, where hundreds of workers have fallen ill, it’s 14 points, according to screenshots and photos shared by meatpacking workers in those plants. 

At the Tyson plant, the company’s general attendance policy notes that “approval of prearranged absences is based upon the business needs of the Company.” Even if workers give the plant proper notification that they’ll miss a day, they receive a point, according to a copy of the attendance policy. 

Mickelson said the document did not accurately reflect the company’s attendance policy during the pandemic, as workers have been encouraged to remain home if they’re sick. 

The point system’s enforcement can also depend on the supervisor. They can bend the rules for employees with whom they have a good relationship, workers said.

While requiring employees to wear masks and installing plastic barriers between workers can reduce the transmission of the virus, the disease will keep spreading if plants don’t isolate and quarantine sick workers, said Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

To curb the virus’s spread, “get rid of the point system and don’t deter people from calling in ill,” she said.

After the Iowa meatpacking worker tested positive, he stayed home for two weeks before returning to the plant. 

During the day, he did jumping jacks in his basement in hopes of strengthening his body enough to fight the virus and recited gasping prayers over the phone with his pastor. At night, he walked alone through his deserted neighborhood, worried he wouldn’t wake up again if he fell asleep.

He said the company is "making us go back to work because some damn hogs got to die. But they don’t care about human life. They care more about the damn hogs than they do about people.”

New system for the pandemic

Before the pandemic, the JBS plant in Greeley allowed 7.5 points before a firing. Now, it’s six, said Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7, the union that represents the plant’s 3,000 workers.

“The attendance policy became even more restrictive,” she said.

Six workers died at the plant, making it one of the deadliest publicly reported meatpacking plant outbreaks in the country, according to Midwest Center tracking.

Sick employees can only recoup points at the Greeley plant if they have a doctor’s note and if they call into an English-only attendance hotline, a problem for a workforce that speaks more than 38 languages, Cordova said.

To remove points from their record, workers must submit to the union screenshots of their call history to the hotline. Many workers find it to be a convoluted process, Cordova said.

“They'll give the point, and then the worker has to fight to have it removed,” she said. “They make it really difficult to call in while sick, so workers are compelled to come into work even if they’re symptomatic.”

Richardson, JBS’s spokeswoman, said their new point system is more forgiving now because it allows workers to miss multiple days in a row. The company reset all its employees’ points to zero in late July, she said.

Tyson temporarily relaxed its point system in March but brought it back in June, even as case counts swelled. 

The timing of Tyson’s decision was no coincidence, said Don Stull, a professor at the University of Kansas who has researched meatpacking for 35 years.

“As that initial attention being focused on the industry began to wane, they started trying to run as near to pre-pandemic levels as they could. So they needed as many workers as they could get,” he said.

Mickelson, Tyson’s spokesman, said Stull’s claim was not true.

Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo, Ia., on Sept. 17, 2020.

Few other opportunities 

Large meatpacking plants are often in rural areas without many jobs opportunities. That leaves workers in a bind when dealing with the point system, workers and advocates said.

Eric Lopez, a sales manager at U.S. Cellular, said his mother works at the JBS plant in Marshalltown. A Mexican immigrant with no formal education who doesn’t speak English, she had few jobs available to her in Marshalltown other than the pork plant, he said. 

She knows people with symptoms have continued showing up to work, he said, and it’s caused her to break down after coming home from work because she fears catching the virus.

For decades, the meatpacking industry has relied on immigrant, minority and poor workers, a demographic that activists and researchers said the primarily white meatpacking executives have exploited. 

“Companies are run by old, white guys who think of workers as a piece of machinery,” said Joe Henry, the political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, a Hispanic civil rights organization. “They see them as people with different skin colors and different languages that they can just go ahead and treat like animals.” 

Tyson and JBS strongly denied this characterization.

“That is completely untrue,” said JBS’s Richardson, whose response echoed Tyson’s. “We have done everything possible to both protect and support our team members during this challenging time.”

Frank Hernandez of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this story.