Fears of unfortunate side effects were not justified

When you think of "meat processers" and "coronavirus pandemic," we bet the first thing that comes to mind is that stretch in 2020 when meat companies seemed bent on risking their employees' health by making them work when sick and providing little to nothing in the way of protection from the virus. Rachel Maddow ran segment after segment about the scandal, but Donald Trump ordered the animal disassembly lines to keep going full-tilt, whatever the risk to workers.

The numbers from individual meat plants were horrifying. Some companies tried to deflect blame for high infection rates from conditions in the crowded workplaces, insisting instead that it had to be because immigrant workers just didn't stay very clean at home. Mitch McConnell was so worried that workers would sue employers that he kept holding up COVID relief in hopes of banning liability suits over COVID. Relatively few such suits were actually filed, but in one, we learned that supervisors at one Tyson Foods pork plant allegedly ran a betting pool on how many workers would be infected. (That case is still ongoing at this point.) A congressional inquiry into the pandemic announced just last week that infections and deaths in the nation's meat industry were roughly triple previous estimates, with more than 59,000 workers infected, of whom about 270 died.

That's a pretty important context to keep in mind when you read this New York Times story about something that Tyson Foods got exactly right, for a change: Back in August, Tyson went well ahead of most of the rest of corporate America in requiring all of its 120,000 employees, from line workers to executives, to get the coronavirus vaccine. Compliance with the requirement is about 96 percent, and roughly 60,500 Tyson employees got vaccinated after the mandate went into place. That's pretty encouraging, as an example of how persuasive vaccine mandates can be, especially when you consider that many Tyson plants are in the South and Midwest, where anti-vaccine sentiment tends to run from "high" to "full bugfuck insane."


So hooray for Tyson for doing something to really protect its workers, even if one of the biggest beneficiaries of the policy is Tyson itself, which will have lower healthcare costs and fewer workers missing work. Way better to profit from having healthy workers than from cutting corners.

Tyson CEO Donnie King told the Times that the decision wasn't easy, since the company feared workers might resign in protest:

We made the decision to do the mandate, fully understanding that we were putting our business at risk. [...] This was very painful to do.

But not nearly as bad as having to shut plants because workers and their families were getting sick and dying. The publicity this time around is way better, too.

The Times story features one worker, Diana Eike, an administrative coordinator, who was initially angry about the mandate, because how dare anyone tell her what to do. But since she got both shots, she's actually glad for the mandate, saying Tyson "took the burden off of me making the choice." She also said that before the mandate took effect, she had already been rethinking her decision to not get the vaccine, because of all the new cases and deaths resulting from the Delta variant. Her adult son, who had been afraid of the shot, also got vaccinated once she did.

She now thinks that, considering the stakes, her resistance had been "selfish."

"I kind of beat myself up," she said, "and think, why did it take somebody else to help me see that?"

That's far better than reading yet another story of someone saying on their deathbed that they wished they'd gotten vaccinated.

It may have helped some that King had only become Tyson's CEO a month before the Delta outbreak, rather than having been in the job throughout the period when the company was more committed to deflection and denial.

King's decision on the vaccine mandate came at a good time, too, the Times notes:

Most corporate executives do not like to be first to take bold actions, or to do so without data to support them. Tyson rolled out the requirements when the handful of companies announcing mandates were focused largely on office workers — who were statistically more likely to be vaccinated than factory employees.

King also readily admits that the decision was partly based on the Cold Equations, balancing the likely vaccination rates a mandate would bring against the numbers of employees who might quit, saying, "We literally counted the cost." The company also consulted with the unions representing its workers. Happily, the unions also liked the idea of workers not dying.

In exchange for their backing, Tyson agreed to offer more benefits for all workers, like paid sick leave.

"People who run large corporate enterprises think in two areas: What's best for my employees and what's best for the company to keep going?" said William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University. "And in this instance, the two mesh beautifully."

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, didn't have any illusions that the company was being a big old sweetheart, but he's fine with the outcome, because it's good for workers:

This was a business decision. [...] There isn't enough of a supply of workers to take the place if a large number of workers are getting sick.

The story notes that some workers have decided they'd rather quit than have protection from a deadly disease forced on them, like one guy who said he felt "betrayed" by the mandate, but on the whole, Tyson says a "very limited number" of workers ended up quitting. The company also granted some 4,000 religious or medical exemptions (again, out of 120,000 workers). Once the Biden administration's vaccine mandate goes into effect in January 2022, those workers will still be able to work if they get weekly tests.

And of course, King has gotten angry emails and text messages, plus one "death threat posted on a bathroom wall in one of our plants," because that's America in 2021, isn't it?

[Missouri Independent / NYT / NYT Dealbook newsletter]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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