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Tyson, JBS Hit With Minority Worker Virus Exposure Complaint (1)

July 9, 2020, 5:11 PMUpdated: July 9, 2020, 10:41 PM

A coalition of activist groups want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cut off financial assistance to meat companies Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS USA for allegedly engaging in racial discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act through their workplace policies during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an administrative complaint filed with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service on Wednesday, the organizations allege that Tyson and JBS have rejected the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, including implementing social distancing on meat processing line, to stop the spread of the virus at their processing facilities.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance, Rural Community Workers Alliance, and several other organizations claim the companies’ current operating procedures have had a discriminatory impact on the predominantly Black and Latino workforce at their plants.

Their complaint targets federal funds received by the the corporations through government contracts awarded under the Farm Bill programs and the Food Purchase and Distribution Program. It says USDA awarded Tyson more than $275 million from 2019 to 2020 and JBS USA and its subsidiary Pilgrim’s Pride more than $193 million from 2019 to 2020.

“Because of the federal money that flows to the two corporations in the form of federal Farm Bill nutrition and Trade Mitigation Program contracts, this disparate impact violates federal civil rights law,” the complaint states.

The groups asked the USDA to suspend, terminate, and refuse to provide financial assistance to the companies and refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for enforcement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on July 7 that nearly 90% of infected meatpacking workers are minorities. The CDC published data collected through May 31, 2020, finding that, based on 21 states reporting race and ethnicity data of infected workers, 87% involved minority workers.

“We’re still reviewing the filing, but can tell you our top priority is the health and safety of all our team members, their families and the communities where our plants are located,” Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon. “We’ve transformed the way our plants operate to protect our team members, implementing measures such as symptom screening before every shift.”

“During this pandemic, we have maintained our operations and the jobs they create only when we believe our facilities to be safe,” Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs at JBS, said. “Our efforts have followed, and often exceeded, CDC guidance. We welcome any review of our practices and response to the pandemic, along with the many opportunities we provide our team members from every background imaginable.” That company, which holds a majority stake in Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., is based in Greeley, Colo.

A representative from the USDA didn’t respond to a Bloomberg Law request for comment.

LULAC—the League of United Latin American Citizens—last week issued a statement commending JBS and Tyson for making “significant strides” in plant worker safety after meetings at the companies’ Greeley and Springdale sites. “There is still more that can and must be done which we will achieve by working together with companies that are making necessary changes,” the group’s president, Domingo Garcia, said then.

Drawing on the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alexander v. Sandoval, Brent Newell, a food project senior attorney with Public Justice in Oakland, Calif., told Bloomberg Law that his organization filed the disparate impact claim with the administrative agency to “address this harmful systemic racial discrimination that’s occurring in the meat processing industry.”

The case is Food Chain Workers Alliance v. Tyson, USDA AMS, 7/8/20.

(Adds comments from Tyson, JBS and LULAC beginning in eighth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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