Major meatpackers Tyson Foods and JBS USA racially discriminated against their minority workers by disproportionately exposing them to COVID-19 through inadequate precautions, a civil rights complaint filed Wednesday by several workers’ rights groups alleges.

Although they make up about 60 percent of all meatpacking workers in the U.S., people of color account for about 90 percent of those infected, according to federal data released this week. The companies did not follow the federal guidance that would have mitigated the virus’s spread among its minority workforce, according to the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“These policies that endanger workers are a deliberate choice by companies to put profit over the lives of workers and their communities – and the demographics of their workforce is no secret to them,” said Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, one of the groups behind the complaint.

Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said the company’s top priority is worker safety. 

“We’ve transformed the way our plants operate to protect our team members, implementing measures such as symptom screening before every shift,” he said.

Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs at JBS USA, said the company takes pride in the diversity of its workforce.

“During this pandemic, we have maintained our operations and the jobs they create only when we believe our facilities to be safe,” he said. “We have embraced our responsibility to provide a safe working environment and will continue to do so. Our efforts have followed, and often exceeded, CDC guidance.”

The complaint was filed with the USDA because the two companies received more than $150 million in contracts through the Farm Bill nutrition programs and the Trade Mitigation Program in 2020. 

“If JBS and Tyson will not prioritize the safety of their Black, Latino, and Asian workers, USDA must enforce our basic civil rights laws,” Adely said.

The voluntary CDC guidelines include installing barriers between workers on production lines, social distancing, temperature screenings and mandatory face masks. But workers have reported nonexistent social distancing in plants, a lack of sanitization and an attendance system that penalizes workers for staying home when sick, according to the complaint. Tyson temporarily relaxed its policy that punishes absentee workers in mid-March, but reinstated it in early June, according to Meat+Poultry.

Around 9 percent of employees at meat and poultry plants have contracted COVID-19, according to CDC data from 14 states. 

Tyson and JBS have the first and second highest numbers of infected employees, respectively, according to data compiled by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting: 8,888 positive cases have been tied to Tyson, and 3,607 have been tied to JBS.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, both Democrats, opened an investigation June 23 into Tyson, JBS and other meatpacking companies for their handling of COVID-19 outbreaks and worker safety in meatpacking plants. 

The letter cites three collaborations between USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting:

* Coronavirus outbreaks climb at U.S. meatpacking plants despite protections, Trump order

* Cheap chicken, beef came at a cost. How American meat plants bred coronavirus hot spots.

* USDA let poultry plants put workers close together even as they got sick from coronavirus.

The companies exported record amounts of meat to China, while issuing warnings about a looming nationwide meat shortage and hiking meat prices for consumers, the senators wrote.

“The companies used the COVID-19 pandemic — and warning of shortages — as cover while they endangered workers, dramatically increased prices for American consumers, and successfully lobbied the President to sign an executive order designating their plants as critical infrastructure and allowing them to continue operating in an unsafe fashion,” they wrote.

Even prior to the pandemic, the meatpacking industry was known for low wages, few benefits and dangerous work. 

Compared to workers in other industries, a higher percentage of meatpacking workers were injured on the job, according to a Government Accountability Office report. They also are more likely to live below the poverty line than workers in other industries, according to a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research

“During COVID-19 once again, the meat industry discriminates against their workers, which in most cases are people of color,” said Axel Fuentes, director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance, another group behind the complaint.

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