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Tyson Foods to open medical clinics at several of its U.S. meat plants

Coronavirus pandemic impacts meat industry
Coronavirus pandemic impacts U.S. meat industry 04:54

Tyson Foods is planning to open medical clinics at several of its U.S. plants to improve the health of its workers and better protect them from the coronavirus.

The Springdale, Arkansas-based company, which processes about 20% of all beef, pork and chicken in the U.S., said that the plan to open clinics near its plants was in the works before the coronavirus struck this year, but that it will undoubtedly help the company respond to the pandemic.

Tyson said it would initially set up clinics near seven of its plants, including in Storm Lake, Iowa and Holcomb, Kansas, in a pilot program. It didn't announce the other five locations as of Thursday. The clinics would open early next year, providing primary care to thousands of Tyson workers and their families.

Tyson is joining a long list of companies that have clinics on or near their worksites or bring in physicians to ensure employees receive annual physicals. Companies say having clinics can reduce health insurance costs by cutting out unnecessary emergency room visits and helping better manage chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity. It can also improve productivity because employees don't have to take as much time off for doctor's appointments.

"Some of our frontline team members aren't using their health plan benefits, and others don't seek care until there's a crisis," said Johanna Söderström, Tyson's chief human resources officer. "We want to change that by providing access to care that can help detect health conditions early and promote healthy habits."

Meat shortages as virus forces plants to close 02:16

Although Tyson has broader goals for its clinics, Söderström said the pandemic reinforced how important this plan is. The clinics will help educate workers about the coronavirus and address any underlying health conditions that could make the virus more dangerous.

Meatpacking plant workers have been particularly susceptible to the coronavirus because they often stand shoulder-to-shoulder carving up meat.

Virus hotspots

At least 17,700 meatpacking workers in the U.S. have been infected or exposed to the virus and 115 have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Back in April, the Minnesota Department of Health reported that 239 workers at a JBS pork plant in Worthington had tested positive for the virus. The plant, which employs 2,000, was shut down for two weeks before reopening in May, following the implementation of enhanced safety measures, according to the Associated Press.

This week, California health officials ordered the closure of Foster Farms' chicken plant after it failed to follow recommendations to control the virus's spread, leading to an outbreak in which eight workers died of COVID-19 and 392 contracted the disease.

Tyson has been accused of not doing enough to protect workers. Earlier this summer, the families of three Tyson workers in Iowa who died from COVID-19 sued the company, saying it knowingly put employees at risk in the early days of the pandemic. JBS was the target of a similar lawsuit in May.

The UFCW, which represents 24,000 of Tyson's 120,000 U.S. workers, praised the decision to open the clinics. Mark Lauritsen, who is head of the union's food processing and meatpacking division, said other meat processors, including JBS and Cargill, have already established clinics at several of their large plants.

"We believe this is a way to improve the health of our members. These models are removing all barriers to health care," Lauritsen said.

Tyson has handed out protective gear and put up plastic dividers between work stations in an effort to protect its employees from the virus. The company also checks employee temperatures when they arrive at the plant. Tyson has hired hundreds of nurses to conduct thousands of coronavirus tests each week, and it believes less than 1% of its workers currently have active cases of COVID-19.

The new clinics will be run by Marathon Health, and there will be no charge to employees and their families for most services.

Don Tyson's chicken operation
A crowd of hens at Don Tyson's mammoth chicken operation. Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

A survey conducted by benefits consultant Mercer found that 31% of employers with 5,000 or more employees already have on-site or nearby health centers for their employees.

"This is a big investment, but it can pay off dramatically in both savings for the individual and for the company as well as improving health and productivity," said Larry Boress, executive director of the National Association of Worksite Health Centers.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open. 

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