The department filed an administrative complaint accusing the world's biggest supplier of premium beef and pork of systematically rejecting 750 female job applicants for entry-level work at its meatpacking plant in Joslin, Ill.
The Labor Department wants a court order of back wages for the affected applicants and employment to more than 100 women. The complaint also requests that all of Tyson Fresh Meat's federal contracts be canceled and the subsidiary barred from such deals until the alleged violations are resolved.
An executive order bars federal contractors such as the Tyson holding from gender discrimination when hiring.
According to the complaint, Tyson had a government contract or subcontract of at least $50,000, though an exact figure was not specified.
"Taxpayer dollars must never be used to discriminate," said Patricia Shiu, chief of the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which enforces affirmative action and other employment regulations on companies with federal contracts.
"In our efforts to uncover workplace discrimination, OFCCP will utilize a host of remedies, including debarment, to protect workers, promote diversity and enforce the law," Shiu added in a statement.
An executive with Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson countered that the Labor Department's charges are based solely on an audit of job application forms, not complaints by anyone who came to the company looking for work.
"We're disappointed the Department of Labor has taken this course of action," added Ken Kimbro, Tyson's senior vice president and chief human resources officer, insisting that "contrary to the impression left by the government's allegation" the company demands a discrimination-free workplace.
"We believe there were legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons certain applicants were not hired," Kimbro said.
According to the complaint, Tyson Fresh Meats' discriminatory hiring dates to at least January 2003, and the business' failure to address the alleged violations prompted the department to begin enforcement proceedings.
"OFCCP also found that Tyson failed to implement an internal audit and reporting system to monitor all personnel activity to ensure that nondiscriminatory policies were carried out as required" by federal law, the complaint alleged.
Kimbro said that since the government's audits in 2003 and 2004, Tyson has adopted procedures ensuing it retains documentation to support its hiring decisions. The company also routinely audits its practices to make certain there are no disparities against female or minority applicants.
During the time period covered by the review, Kimbro added, 28 percent of the Joslin plant's work force were women and 66 percent of the employees were minorities.
Kimbro said Tyson would continue cooperating with the OFCCP, and "we remain committed to treating all job applicants fairly."
A Tyson holding has faced hiring discrimination claims before. In 2008, TNT Crust a Green Bay, Wis., pizza crust maker agreed to pay $188,000 to up to 50 Hispanic job applicants to resolve a Labor Department claim that the business seven years earlier offered Spanish application forms to Hispanics but never hired those who filled them out. The government also alleged TNT Crust made Hispanic applicants take an English test and used the results in deciding not to hire them.