The head of the union representing workers in the grocery and meatpacking industries on Thursday expressed support for the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate, though he said it didn’t go “far enough.”
The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced an emergency temporary standard that requires large companies ensure their workers are either fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or regularly test for the virus and wear a mask.
COVID-19 is the deadliest pandemic in the history of the U.S., linked to the deaths of 750,000 people and millions of infections, according to OSHA. The agency estimates its rule will save thousands of lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations due to workplace exposure to COVID-19.
“America’s frontline food and retail workers have faced extreme health risks throughout the pandemic,” United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International President Marc Perrone said in a news release. “Today’s action from the Biden administration, while not going far enough, is a critical first step to keep workers safe on the job as COVID-19 dangers continue.”
OSHA’s rule applies to employers with 100 or more employees, covering two-thirds of the nation’s private-sector workforce, and employers must meet most of the requirements by early December. Testing requirements take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register (see unpublished rule here)—by Jan. 4.
Some large companies, including Tyson Foods, have already taken steps to ensure all their employees are vaccinated. Last month, the company announced more than 96% of its “active team members” were vaccinated. Tyson said in August that all of its 120,000 workers would need to be vaccinated or lose their jobs, The New York Times reported.
In a note to his team members, Tyson Foods President and CEO Donnie King said the vaccinations have “absolutely” made a difference in the “health and safety” of employees.
“We’ve seen a significant decline in the number of active cases, companywide,” King said.
He said he respected workers’ choice to remain unvaccinated, adding, “If you change your mind and want to rejoin Tyson—let us know. Our doors are open.”
UFCW recently negotiated the vaccinate mandate at Tyson Foods, resulting in a 96% vaccine rate among frontline employees, according to the union representing 1.3 million workers in grocery, meatpacking, retail, pharmacy and other frontline industries. But the union’s boss suggested companies aren’t doing enough to protect their workers.
“With more than 70,000 new COVID cases every day, companies must do more to keep workers safe,” Perrone said. “CEOs should be doing everything they can, including paying for PPE, vaccines, testing, and paid leave to put the health and safety of essential workers first. Workers should not have to use money out of their own pockets to pay for critical PPE like masks.”
A congressional subcommittee disclosed last month in a staff memorandum that the number of coronavirus infections and deaths at U.S. meatpacking plants was substantially higher than previously reported. During the first year of the pandemic, at least 59,000 employees of five of the largest meatpacking conglomerates—including Tyson Foods—contracted COVID-19, according to the House of Representatives’ Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
That’s nearly triple the 22,700 infections previously estimated for these companies, the congressional subcommittee said, adding at least 269 of these companies’ employees died.