Tyson Foods has reached a 91 percent vaccination rate for its work force, the latest evidence that corporate vaccine mandates can help increase immunizations in the United States.
When Tyson announced on Aug. 3 that it would require coronavirus vaccines for all 120,000 of its U.S. employees, the move was notable because it included frontline workers when mandates applied primarily to office workers. At the time, less than half its work force was inoculated.
Nearly two months later, about 109,000 employees are vaccinated, said Dr. Claudia Coplein, Tyson’s chief medical officer.
Tyson was one of the first major companies to mandate vaccines after incentives like paid time off to be inoculated started to lose traction. Other companies have also issued broad mandates and have reported similar success. United Airlines said this week that 99 percent of its work force was vaccinated, and scores of hospital workers have agreed to a shot after initial resistance. In California, health care employers have reported vaccination rates of 90 percent or higher.
Fortune 500 companies and the White House’s Covid-19 task force have reached out to Tyson to discuss the company’s experience, the company said. President Biden has thanked Tyson publicly for its vaccination efforts as he has encouraged others to follow suit.
“We’ve had many conversations, sometimes multiple with individual companies, just wanting to understand both our decision-making process but how things have progressed over time,” Dr. Coplein said.
Tyson’s frontline workers have until Nov. 1 to get vaccinated (or request an exemption), while the company’s roughly 6,000 office workers have until Friday. Unlike some other big companies, Tyson has not faced any lawsuits over its mandate, but it has lost a handful of employees, a number that may increase as the deadline nears.
Vaccine mandates are “not perfect, but they’re working because the economic reality is starting to set in that you’re going to potentially be out of a job,” said Ian Carleton Schaefer, a partner at the law firm Loeb & Loeb who specializes in labor issues.
Tyson did not release vaccination rates by type of worker, but “certainly the vaccination rate among our frontline workers was lower than our office-based workers at the beginning of this,” Dr. Coplein said.
This month, Mr. Biden asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to order large employers to make vaccination against the coronavirus mandatory. Tyson expects that when OSHA outlines more details and a timeline for mandates, which could take weeks, more companies will announce vaccine requirements. When that happens, the options will be limited for those who quit (or are let go) rather than get a shot.
While companies await further guidance from the Biden administration, advisers are looking to details released by the White House on its mandate for federal contractors for clues. That mandate, outlined last week, will apply to employees working both remotely and in the office. It will also allow for “limited” exceptions.
Organized labor, which has tentatively welcomed Mr. Biden’s mandate, has become a crucial ally in efforts by firms like the Walt Disney Company and AT&T to vaccinate their workers. Tyson said it had been able to negotiate an agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents several thousand of its workers, to endorse the mandate in return for more benefits for all workers, like paid sick leave.
“Certainly having the union endorse our vaccination requirement means a lot, both to the company and to our team members who are part of the union,” Dr. Coplein said.
Tyson said about 91 percent of its 31,000 unionized employees were vaccinated, matching the company’s overall rate.
One of the company’s poultry plants achieved a 100 percent vaccination rate, from 78 percent before, after Covid hit close to home. A viral video about Caleb Reeves, a young Arkansas man who died of Covid, helped to highlight the risk of the virus to young people, “and we have many young frontline workers,” Dr. Coplein said. Mr. Reeves’s uncle worked at a Tyson plant, and the video “gave them a personal connection to say, ‘Hey, that could be my family, too,’” she said.
The vaccine mandate was part of Tyson’s larger effort to confront the virus, which ravaged its work force early in the pandemic. Meat processors faced criticism last year for a lack of worker protections amid outbreaks in many factories. A number of workers died after the virus swept through processing plants, causing illness and closures.
Tyson said it had spent more than $700 million on Covid safety measures and bringing in on-site medical services. The company continues to follow federal guidance, including wearing masks in all its facilities, Dr. Coplein said.
It has also added a carrot to its mandate by offering cash incentives and paid time off to those who get vaccinated. For instance, employees with at least one shot at 50 of the company’s chicken-processing plants were allowed to partake in a weekly raffle for a $10,000 award. It also has been offering fully vaccinated employees a $200 bonus.
Executives have visited plants to have small group conversations about the vaccines. “It’s important to recognize that misinformation is out there,” Dr. Coplein said.
Tyson hosted a panel about a month ago that included Dr. Coplein and two outside physicians to address common myths, fielding questions from employees. Among the queries: whether vaccination will affect fertility or pregnancy. (Current evidence indicates it won’t.)
“The most powerful conversations have been when I sat down with somebody who was scared or emotional or otherwise hesitant to get the vaccine,” Dr. Coplein said, “and they just really needed somebody to listen to them with empathy.”