In the beginning of 2021, as COVID-19 vaccine distribution was being rolled out slowly in the United States, meat and poultry processors were desperately trying to keep their workforces healthy so production could remain operational. Plant closures plagued the industry in 2020, as employees were exposed and sickened by the rapidly spreading virus. Processors did what they could to keep the lines running, including installing barriers between workers, mandating personal protective equipment (PPE) and distancing employees as they worked and took breaks. Despite the ongoing efforts, many front-line workers contracted the virus.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) estimates that meat and poultry companies spent more than $1.5 billion on prevention measures to help keep workers safe while maintaining operations in 2020.

The measures included screening and testing employees; installing physical barriers throughout plants; adjusting production schedules and systems to accommodate social distancing during production as well as during breaks; increased sanitation throughout the facilities; installing additional ventilation systems; purchasing and providing PPE; increasing on-site medical services; and providing education to employees about COVID-19, how to prevent the spread at work and in the community and information about vaccines.

In early December 2020, NAMI sent a letter to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and followed up with another letter, co-signed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), urging governors to protect workers by allowing them access to the vaccine just after administering initial doses to workers in healthcare and long-term care facilities. The industry agreed that meat plant workers should be part of Phase 1b of the vaccination distribution program.

“In 2020, the meat and poultry industry was deemed essential infrastructure by the federal government and as such continued to produce food for the nation during the state of emergency. Many facilities instituted a number of controls and programs to reduce the spread of COVID-19 but there was no silver bullet,” said Sarah Little, vice president of communications for NAMI. “In order to continue to produce food for Americans while keeping our employees safe it was critical to obtain the vaccine so these employees could have the best, long-term protection from COVID-19. The Meat Institute called on the president and members of his administration to prioritize meat and poultry workers to receive the vaccine following medical workers and vulnerable Americans. The Meat Institute also worked with UFCW, state governors and other organizations to ensure workers had access to the vaccine.”

By early February, meat plants around the country started programs to get their front-line workers vaccinated. However, as vaccination priorities continued to vary from state to state, NAMI continued its push to help get all meat processing employees on the priority list.

“Front-line meat and poultry workers were among the first impacted by the pandemic, but comprehensive protections implemented in the sector since spring 2020 worked,” Julie Anna Potts, president and chief executive officer of NAMI, said last March. “The critical next step is to ensure immediate access to vaccines as this dedicated and diverse workforce continues feeding Americans and keeping our farm economy working.”

Education campaign

When vaccines first started to be rolled out at meat plants, companies were anxious to encourage as many workers as possible to get vaccinated. Tyson Foods started its employee education campaign on the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine at the beginning of 2021.

“Our education piece started well before the vaccine was available,” said Derek Burleson, spokesperson for Tyson. “We wanted to let our team members know that this is not required, but we’re highly encouraging it. We let them know that it’s coming, and we want you to have accurate information to make the decision that’s right for you.”

Siloam Springs, Ark.-based Simmons Foods also started its vaccination education campaign long before the company conducted on-site vaccine clinics at its facilities in early March.

“We’ve made it a priority to inform and educate our team members about the importance of getting vaccinated by accessing resources from health officials, and then walking and talking to answer questions in face-to-face conversations,” said Russell Tooley, chief administrative officer for Simmons Foods.

The next step in the push for vaccination among workers was incentivizing employees. A number of meat processing companies chose to offer money and time off to employees who made the decision to get vaccinated.

JBS USA and Pilgrim’s offered a $100 incentive to all team members who chose to be vaccinated. Tyson opted to compensate workers for time lost from work. Tyson said it would pay employees up to four hours of regular pay if they are vaccinated outside of their normal shift or if they are vaccinated at an off-site location.

“This incentive is an additional way we can encourage our front-line workers to receive the vaccination, which we believe is another important protective measure,” said Johanna Söderström, executive vice president and chief human resources officer for Tyson.

In order to make it as easy as possible to get vaccinated before, during or after work, processors held on-site vaccination events. By the end of March, Tyson had helped more than 30,000 employees get vaccinated at its vaccination events.

Making it mandatory

Tyson and many companies in the United States, decided to take their vaccination efforts one step further by making it a requirement for employment. On Aug. 3, Tyson announced that it was requiring its leadership officers to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 24, its workers in office locations around the country by Oct. 1 and the rest of its employees to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1.

“Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the single most effective thing we can do to protect our team members, their families and their communities,” said Claudia Coplein, MD, chief medical officer for Tyson Foods. “With rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts of contagious, dangerous variants leading to increasing rates of severe illness and hospitalization among the US unvaccinated population, this is the right time to take the next step to ensure a fully vaccinated workforce.”

As an additional incentive, front-line workers were offered a $200 bonus after verifying they are fully vaccinated. The company also said it would continue to provide four hours of regular pay compensation if employees are vaccinated outside of their normal shift or at an outside location.

“We did not take this decision lightly,” Donnie King, president and CEO of Tyson, wrote in a memo to employees. “We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated – today, under half of our team members are. We take this step today because nothing is more important than our team members’ health and safety, and we thank them for the work they do, every day, to help us feed this country, and our world.”

In early November, President Joe Biden and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a requirement for employers with 100 or more employees to ensure each of their workers is fully vaccinated or tests for COVID-19 on at least a weekly basis. The deadline to develop, implement and enforce this mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy is Jan. 4, 2022.

However, on Nov. 12, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted a motion to stay the OSHA requirement. If the stay is lifted and the program is implemented, the OSHA rule would cover more than 84 million employees or about two-thirds of the US workforce.