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9,000 Employees Sick As COVID-19 Overwhelmed Arkansas Workplaces

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(Editor’s Note: This story was produced by the University of Arkansas journalists in collaboration with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. The Howard Center is an initiative of the Scripps Howard Foundation in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer, Roy W. Howard. It was distributed by The Associated Press.)

SPRINGDALE, Ark. (AP) — Poultry giant Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, the third-largest employer in Arkansas, reported 2,866 COVID-19 cases at its workplaces, nearly one-third of the state’s 9,065 sickened workers across all industries from May 19, 2020, to April 8, 2021, according to an Arkansascovid.com analysis of Arkansas Department of Health data.

The state health department publishes COVID-19 occupational illness reports that show businesses with five or more active cases. In less than one year, Tyson had 281 appearances in these reports. Comparatively, Walmart Inc. of Bentonville, the largest employer in the state, had two appearances that totaled 12 sick workers. 

Of Tyson’s 21 major locations in Arkansas, four have not appeared in the state’s data during the pandemic. Near the company’s headquarters in northwest Arkansas, the Tyson location on Berry Street in Springdale reported 416 COVID-19 cases, the most of any company workplace in the data.

In working conditions that stress a quick turnaround on products and have close contact between employees, workers told Arkansascovid.com they were put at risk for catching COVID-19. Legal-aid attorneys and worker-advocacy groups said the state regulatory structure was overwhelmed by the pandemic. That, combined with a weak union presence, led to a failure to provide adequate protections for struggling workers.

“We got a fair number of calls from workers who were really worried about going back to an unsafe working condition,” said Kevin De Liban, director of advocacy for Legal Aid of Arkansas. The state does not have many protections for low-wage workers, which has led to employers taking advantage of their staff, he said.

The 9,065 reports of worker COVID-19 cases are about 3% of the 334,998 positive cases in Arkansas reported from March 2020 through April 27, 2021. Workplace illnesses were the main indicator of the pandemic’s severity in the state, said Ben Amick, associate dean of research and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

In the broader community, COVID-19 cases in Arkansas grew exponentially starting in October, which overshadowed workplaces and led to “uncontrolled spread in the community,” Amick said.

The Choice

Interviews with workers and advocacy groups revealed a fear of balancing the need to make a living against possible virus exposures in the workplace.

“It’s not easy to see so many of your coworkers become sick and know that some of them have even died,” said a worker for Tyson’s Chick-N-Quick in Rogers. The Spanish-speaking worker did not want to be identified due to concerns of workplace retaliation.

This employee spent the last year working with the fear of infecting their family, similar to eight other Arkansas workers interviewed for this story. Every poultry employee interviewed said their workplace’s management did not formally tell them about sick coworkers. 

“It’s sad and difficult because you don’t know if the next person is going to be you or bring the sickness home with you, and then possibly infect your wife and children,” the worker said. 

Workers agreed that lack of communication concerning sick colleagues was a problem, but some expressed support for the efforts to contain COVID-19 made by Tyson and other companies.

“I think Tyson, all in all, they (were) up front with us about everything, they didn’t hide anything from us,” said Debra Marsh of Texarkana, Texas, who has worked at the Tyson facility in Hope for 25 years.

Marsh, 59, said she has not feared going to work during the pandemic because she doesn’t come into contact with many workers in her position and was comfortable with the protocols Tyson put in place. While at Tyson, Marsh was randomly COVID-19 tested twice and received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Similar to Marsh, Eric Brown, a maintenance worker at the Tyson in Hope, said he has not feared going to work during the pandemic because Tyson management installed dividers, and enforced use of masks and face shields in the workplace.

In January 2020, Tyson formed a coronavirus task force that implemented temperature checks, health screenings, masks, social distancing and access to COVID-19 vaccines, Tyson spokesperson Derek Burleson wrote in an email.

“Our top priority has been and always will be the health and safety of our team members,” Burleson said. “We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars for team-member safety during the pandemic to transform our U.S. facilities with protective measures.”

Tyson’s reported 2,866 sick workers were four times greater than the next-most-prevalent company, George’s Inc., which reported 704 sick workers. Tyson employs about 24,000 people in Arkansas, whereas George’s employs 7,000 people.

Burleson said currently less than 1% of Tyson’s active workforce has tested positive with COVID-19.

“More than half of our workforce has been tested. And we are testing thousands of workers each week, including those who have no symptoms,” Burleson said. “If our team members have concerns, we want to hear from them.”

The Data

Arkansascovid.com compiled and analyzed COVID-19 occupational illness reports as part of a collaboration with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. The data is available here and in a searchable database here.

From May 2020 to April 2021, the Arkansas Department of Health periodically published 80 reports that only included companies with five or more active cases at the time of the report, said Gavin Lesnick, the former public information director for the Arkansas Department of Health.

Data was collected from contact tracing and business reporting of positive COVID-19 cases, although companies were not legally required to report sick workers, he said. Arkansascovid.com reporters used the R data analysis software to extract and compile details from the reports, producing new insights about the scale of the pandemic.

Despite worker concerns and thousands of illnesses, few workers in Arkansas complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that oversees workplace safety. From March 16, 2020, to Feb. 9, 2021, eight poultry industry complaints concerning COVID-19 were filed, four of which involved Tyson. During that time, there were 106 total complaints filed in Arkansas.

Other Poultry Plants

Wayne Farms LLC, a poultry plant in Danville, first appeared in the state health department data June 2, 2020, with 10 total cases and totaled 230 sick workers in their last appearance in December.

Wayne Farms maintenance employee, Willie Besinger, tested positive for the virus in December 2020. Besinger said he believed he contracted COVID-19 while on a smoke break with a coworker at the poultry plant, but he said he still feels safe at work.

Besinger praised Wayne Farms for taking the pandemic seriously. “They kind of stepped up, and they (did) what was needed,” he said. 

Frank Singleton, a Wayne Farms spokesperson, said the company provides workers with personal-protective equipment, sanitizing stations and dividers. He said he believes his company has done “a phenomenal job.”

Additionally, Wayne Farms has implemented daily infrared temperature checks for employees and visitors, analyses of worker illnesses and paid time off to directly-exposed employees during their 14-day quarantine.

Although Besinger said he feels safe, a line worker at Wayne Farms said he was scared of going to work, contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to his 63-year-old spouse and 13-year-old granddaughter at home.

“My biggest fear is bringing this stuff home to my family, and they don’t care about stuff like that,” said the Wayne Farms worker, who did not want to be identified due to concerns of workplace retaliation. “Wayne Farms cares about one thing, and that’s getting that chicken out of that truck and into the packages and sent off. That’s all they care about.”

The Arkansas Department of Health occupational reports show employment, but provide no details about how workers contracted the virus. Singleton suggested some of these workers could have contracted the virus outside the workplace.

“The data, when applied against a workplace, is only a fraction of a person’s actual existence,” he said.

Many Arkansans became infected during summer 2020, when overall occupational illnesses first peaked. In June, records show 1,906 infected workers, about 14% of the total 13,524 new cases statewide, but that rate dropped after July and through the fall.

George’s implemented basic safety protocols, such as mask wearing and plastic dividers between workstations. Still, George’s reported 704 sick workers for the second-most cases in occupational data, according to the Arkansascovid.com data analysis.

A worker at a George’s plant in Springdale, whose name was withheld due to retaliation concerns, worried about the lack of social-distancing protocols, especially during shift changes. Social-distancing measures are difficult to adhere to when employees are crowding around time clocks, they said. 

“I would estimate that by the time I enter, around 7 in the morning, there are about 200 workers,” the George’s worker said.

Facing South magazine reported that in early December, George’s management promised to add more time clocks to resolve these issues after workers raised concerns following a walkout in Springdale.

“They kept talking about those promises, but nothing has been fulfilled,” the George’s employee said.

Arkansascovid.com attempted to contact George’s multiple times, but the company did not respond to a request for comment.

Another George’s worker, a single father of two teenagers, expressed worry about being safe at work and losing his job because he would only be able to survive financially for one month. His name was withheld due to retaliation concerns.

“There is a risk at work all the time,” the Springdale George’s worker said in Spanish. “But you have to go to work.” 


(The following University of Arkansas data journalism students contributed to this report: Haley Hale, Grayson Green, Ravi Brock, Caroline Sellers, Robert Stewart, Katy Seiter, Emma Dannenfelser and Graham Smithson; UA associate professor Rob Wells edited and contributed. Carmen Molina Acosta from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism also contributed.)

(More stories in this series are available at the Howard Center website.)

(All contents © copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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