It wasn’t your usual early Saturday morning shift near the Tyson Foods’ plant in Council Bluffs — a small southwestern Iowa town located across the Missouri River from Omaha. At 6 a.m., mask-clad managers began rolling in, trading their hard hats, earplugs and steel-toed boots for jeans, bright neon green T-shirts and tennis shoes. Soon after, workers started lining up outside.
“There was a bit of anxiousness you could feel in the room, everybody wanting for this thing to come off as smoothly as it can,” said Shane Kolle, complex manager at the Tyson facility that prepares pre-packaged cuts of beef and pork sold in grocery store meat cases.
The anxiety of this workday was unlike anything these managers and an estimated 1,500 employees at the plant, and another 200 at a nearby pepperoni facility, were used to. Instead of trimming, slicing and packaging cuts of meat, the “job” this Saturday was doling out and receiving the recently approved Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the Mid-America Center across the street from their usual workplace.
The first wave of workers arriving to get their vaccine streamed into the building at 7 a.m., following social distancing protocols. They were given temperature checks and screened for symptoms before they were directed to tables where their consent forms — the majority of which were filled out in advance — were laid out in piles.
“There was a bit of anxiousness you could feel in the room, everybody wanting for this thing to come off as smoothly as it can, and it did.”
Complex manager, Tyson Foods’ Council Bluffs plant
Kolle, who worked with local health officials to coordinate the vaccination for Tyson, said the company learned having employees complete the consent forms in advance saved time. It also gave workers an opportunity to speak with interpreters to make sure they knew what was going to happen when they arrived.
Workers, however, could drop in the day of, fill out the consent form that was translated into 15 different languages and talk to eight interpreters available. An estimated 50 people who previously hadn’t registered showed up Saturday to get vaccinated, the company said.
At Council Bluffs, managers handing out consent forms noticed there was still a bottleneck in the process. So they quickly grabbed three long picnic tables and organized the completed consent forms by worker ID. Three people were assigned to pull the forms with another running IDs to keep things moving.
“Once we identified that as an area of opportunity … we had it down to fewer than five minutes from the time you walked in the door to when you got your shot,” Kolle said.
For team members that had already filled out the consent forms, the vaccination process took about 20 minutes, 15 of which was sitting on nearby chairs in the recovery center to make sure they didn’t have any adverse reactions to the shot.
As they waited, employees received bottles of water, as well as apples, oranges, Oreos, Goldfish crackers and other snacks. A photo booth was set up for workers to take a picture with neon green T-shirts they were given emblazoned with “Got the shot, stronger together” on the front and “Tyson Council Bluffs, prepared team” on the back.
Once the event concluded at 4 p.m., 1,100 workers, or roughly 65% of people at Council Bluffs and the pepperoni plant, were vaccinated.
Rosa Izarraraz, a production supervisor at the Tyson plant, said at first she was hesitant to get the vaccine but her concerns were assuaged once she learned more about it and the prospects of keeping her family and others around her safe. She said her decision helped sway the opinion of some of her colleagues.
“Team members were concerned. … Some of them were saying they were not going to do it,” she said, citing uncertainty at the time about possible side effects that might be tied to the J&J vaccine. “They would come to me and ask me, ‘Rosa, are you going to get the vaccine?’ I tried to get informed and encouraged them to do it. I noticed their reaction; it changed their mind. They felt confident that they were going to do it.”
The meat packing industry as a whole was hit particularly hard during the early stages of the outbreak last spring. Unions, activists, workers and family members criticized the meat industry for waiting too long to put additional safety measures in place. Some employees who contracted the virus and families of workers who died from the coronavirus have filed lawsuits against Smithfield Foods, Tyson and other companies for the conditions in plants.
UFCW, which represents about 80% of the country’s beef and pork workers and 40% of those in poultry, estimated more than 22,000 meatpacking workers have been infected or exposed, with at least 132 dying from the coronavirus. According to Food Dive data, Tyson had the most COVID-19 cases — roughly 11,000 people, or 9% of all employees at the company, compared to other meat operators. In Iowa, more than 3,000 of Tyson’s workers, including 224 people in Council Bluffs, have contracted the virus.
Tyson so far has doled out vaccines to 19,000 workers at 50 centralized locations across the U.S. The total is expected to increase to 30,000 people, or roughly 25% of its 120,000 member workforce, by the end of March as the supply of shots continues to increase across the U.S. Tyson is giving workers up to four hours of regular pay if they are vaccinated outside of their normal shift or through an external source.
Tyson is not the only meatpacker moving aggressively to vaccinate its workers. JBS USA, which is paying a $100 incentive for all team members who choose to be vaccinated, said it expected about one-third of the company’s more than 60,000 workers will have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by last Saturday.
Meat companies, including Tyson, Smithfield Foods and JBS, have spent millions of dollars offering bonuses to employees and retrofitting plants to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Tyson spent at least $600 million on the coronavirus in fiscal year 2020, including about $300 million in bonuses and other benefits for workers. That total is likely much higher now, as the company is giving the vaccine to its workers for free.
The Council Bluffs plant, in particular, has implemented a variety of protective measures, including face coverings, face shields, walk-through temperature scanners, wellness screenings, workstation dividers, weekly testing and social distance monitors, according to Tyson. These measures, first installed in the spring of 2020, remain in place.
Days before employees funneled into the Mid-America Center, Tyson had already surveyed the facility twice so it knew how everything would need to be set up. The planning also helped Tyson know how many of its own employees — 14 managers and 11 occupational nurses at any one time — would be needed to staff the event. On the day Tyson workers received their vaccines, teachers and law enforcement were on the other side of the room doing the same.
Bob Reinhard, who is leading Tyson’s vaccination efforts, said while employee participation rates vary by plant, its first two events in Arkansas had more than 70%. “We don’t require anyone to get vaccinated but we do strongly encourage it,” he said. “That’s a personal choice.”
Tyson first started planning how it would administer the vaccines company-wide in early December. It identified the locations where it would be given out, such as another building or inside the processing plant itself, organized the consent forms and had them translated into 50 different languages. Information on the approved vaccines was assembled for distribution later on to employees.
When Tyson is notified by state health officials that it will receive enough vaccines for a particular plant, it moves quickly to notify workers. In the case of Council Bluffs, Tyson began preparing in earnest for workers to get the vaccine nine days earlier.
Once it was apparent the J&J vaccine was going to be approved by the FDA and that Iowa would get some of those doses, Reinhard said Tyson coordinated with the state’s health department to discuss how many they would need by location for its 13,000 workers in the Hawkeye state. Iowa allowed workers in essential industries where they can’t socially distance to be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in early March.
As Iowa waited for the vaccine to arrive, Tyson went about getting together educational materials on the newly approved J&J vaccine and then having it translated into different languages. Sites across the state where the vaccines were administered were set up.
Posters and digital signs are placed around the facility telling employees the date and time and notifying them that they can sign up. Workers are provided information about the vaccine they will be given and myths, like rumored side effects, are dispelled. A 1-800 number is listed in case people have further questions or want to talk to a medical provider. Employees also are notified about the upcoming vaccinations through pamphlets in their mailboxes and at routine safety meetings.
Chad Sulley, an hourly trainer at Council Bluffs, said he dislikes needles but the information and calming words from the nurse who helped administer the shot, made him feel more comfortable.
“It eased my concerns and I was less afraid of getting it,” he said of the one-shot J&J vaccine. “They notified me of the symptoms. They notified me of the process and it just made me more glad I’m getting the vaccine.”
In the days leading up the vaccination, Tyson remained in contact with state and local health officials, monitoring the movement of the doses into Iowa. The poultry, beef and pork processor was notified by the local health department in Council Bluffs that it had received and counted all the doses on Thursday — just two days before the event was to take place. In other vaccination efforts, Tyson received doses just as it was about to start. A similar event in Waterloo, Iowa, had to be delayed a day because of when the J&J shots would arrive.
With workers busy at their jobs and responsibilities at home, Tyson decided early on to have managers meet with each employee in the days leading up to the vaccination to remind them of the event and “talk to [them] about opting in” and whether they had any interest in doing so, Reinhard said. The move helped drive up participation rates for its workers. Tyson also works with community groups and ethnic leaders who can connect with employees and support its educational outreach.
“We have not seen concerns about some arbitrary review of their [immigration] status or any of that kind of stuff,” Reinhard noted. “These are people that are employed appropriately in the United States so having access to the vaccine is what they are interested in.”
Once the initial vaccination is over, Tyson encourages the rest of the staff to let them know if they are still interested. The company works with the local health department to get them a shot or, if enough people come forward, holds another large-scale event. Two additional opportunities to get vaccinated are not uncommon for many facilities.
“We definitely see more people being interested after others have gone forward and been vaccinated,” Reinhard said. “Our goal is to get up in that 60, 70, 80% vaccination but it will take a couple of events at a lot of our locations just to get there.”
Izarraraz said a few people have mentioned to her they wish they had received the vaccine the first time it was offered. “I told them my experience and how comfortable I felt,” she said. “They decided it was a good thing to do and they will have it when it’s available to them.”
Tyson’s Council Bluffs plant has already been in touch with the local health department to prepare for its next wave of vaccinations. .
An estimated 50 Tyson locations across 14 states have yet to be vaccinated, but the company has already determined where, what and how the event would take place.
“Everything is done in anticipation of the vaccine arrival,” Reinhard said. “It’s quite a lot in getting these events and getting the vaccine distributed. … There is a lot to do in order to pull these events off and make them happen, and you need all parties engaged in every step.”