An investigative reporting project by the University of Arkansas and the University of Maryland says that almost a third of the 9,000 Arkansas workers sickened by COVID-19 between May 2020 and early April were reported by Tyson Foods.

In working conditions that stress a quick turnaround on products and have close contact between employees, workers told Arkansascovid.com they were put at risk for catching COVID-19. Legal-aid attorneys and worker-advocacy groups said the state regulatory structure was overwhelmed by the pandemic. That, combined with a weak union presence, led to a failure to provide adequate protections for struggling workers.

The 9,065 workplace illnesses counted in state figures were about 3 percent of all COVID cases in the state, but they spread into the community. For its part, Tyson has said repeatedly it’s been careful about workplace conditions.

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Interviews with workers and advocacy groups revealed a fear of balancing the need to make a living against possible virus exposures in the workplace.

“It’s not easy to see so many of your coworkers become sick and know that some of them have even died,” said a worker for Tyson’s Chick-N-Quick in Rogers. The Spanish-speaking worker did not want to be identified due to concerns of workplace retaliation.

From Governor Hutchinson down Arkansas politicians emphasized work over health and the need to keep the economy churning. Even today, the governor is truncating federal unemployment benefits 10 weeks early in hopes of forcing people back to work. He insists rich benefits are keeping people at home. Labor experts say the facts don’t support that view, popular among business people with vacancies. They say fear of the virus, lack of child care, a search for better jobs and other factors are contributing to shortages in some business sectors, particularly the low-wage hospitality industry.

The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Maryland also reported a failure of federal regulators to look after interests of Walmart workers as its sales rose sharply during the pandemic. However, the separate report on the high number of cases at Tyson Foods mentioned:

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The state health department publishes COVID-19 occupational illness reports that show businesses with five or more active cases. In less than one year, Tyson had 281 appearances in these reports. Comparatively, Walmart Inc. of Bentonville, the largest employer in the state, had two appearances that totaled 12 sick workers.