Achoo!!  No paid sick leave for 91% of Arkansas poultry workers

Consumers beware! A survey of 500 poultry-processing workers in Arkansas found that 62 percent said they have gone to work when they were sick. Why? Only 9 percent of the workers reported they had access to earned sick leave.

Have the flu? No problem. Come to work anyway and cut those chicken tenders.

Suffering from diarrhea? No worries. Come to work anyway and skin those chicken breasts.

The survey results, based on a representative sample of poultry workers in Arkansas, come from a report released today by the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center (NAWJC). The study, "Wage and Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants," was conducted by the Unitarian Universalists Service Committee and researchers from UC-Berkeley and UC-Santa Cruz. It adds to the overwhelming evidence assembled by other researchers (e.g., here, here, here, here) on the grim conditions today for workers in the US poultry industry.

I especially appreciate the researchers' focus on poultry workers in Arkansas. They number about 28,000 with 33 percent identified as Hispanic and 17 percent as Black.  Tyson Foods---the largest poultry producer in the US---has its headquarters in Arkansas. Tyson is the 2nd largest employer in Arkansas (after WalMart.) There’s a good chance that many of the Arkansas workers who were surveyed for the NAWJC’s report come from Tyson plants.

Here's some of what the Arkansas poultry workers said about working while sick:

  • Many responded that they had worked sick as many as one to two weeks during the past year.
  • When asked why they had gone to work sick, 77% responded that they did not have earned sick leave and needed the money.

And there's more:

  • 54% said they were afraid of disciplinary action if they missed work while sick.
  • 44% reported that they had been directly threatened with discipline or firing if they missed work because of illness.

It’s hard to believe that a multi-billion dollar poultry industry would not take steps to ensure that employees who are sick can stay home with pay to recover. Is there no concern for infecting others or compromising food safety?

The workers also reported a perverse "point system" which also compels them to go to work when they are sick. One poultry worker explained to the researchers:

"There are so many times I went to work but I am sick. The reason I go to work is because if I don’t go I will get a point. Even if you call in sick and bring a doctor’s note, they still will give you half a point."

The release of the NAWJC's report comes on the same day that Tyson Foods reported quarterly earnings to its shareholders. The President of CEO of Tyson Foods, Donnie Smith, said:

“we expect it to be another record year.”

And the company's performance:

"...resulted in record earnings, record operating income, record margins and record cash flows.”

The company’s quarterly earnings report shows it had more than $9 billion in sales and net earnings of $461 million.  Repeat: $461 million in profit this quarter. This is a company that can't afford a paid sick leave policy? I searched Tyson's website, but didn't find any mention of one.

I did find this about its commitment to animal welfare:

"All Team members, as well as our supplier associates are expected to respect the animals they work with and ensure they are treated in a proper and humane manner."

Paid sick leave would demonstrate respect and humane treatment by Tyson Foods of its employees and customers.

P.S. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal reports that Tyson Foods' Chairman John Tyson was compensated more than $850,000 for private use of a corporate aircraft. He ranks #1 among Fortune 100 company officials for compensation for personal jet travel. By my calculation, $850,000 could cover more than 8,100 sick days for workers who earn $13 per hour.

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