Are We Headed for Full Bezos?

Aug. 23, 2021
As the pandemic recedes, senior editor Pan Demetrakakes says the industry must decide how to treat employees.

In the past few months, three big stories relating to labor have been, in my opinion, indicative of where the American food industry’s workforce is and where it might be going.

No. 1: Tyson Foods announces in early August that it will require all employees, including plant floor workers, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Tyson is the first major company to institute a vaccination requirement for so-called “front line” workers.

No. 2: A strike at the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kan., is concluded after 20 days. The workers get two consecutive years of 2% raises and a guaranteed day off a week. Doesn’t sound like much? It does to people who routinely were forced to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

No. 3: A New York Times exposé on Amazon, the country’s second-biggest employer, shows that CEO Jeff Bezos wants to keep turnover at his warehouses as high as possible. And he does: The average rate is 150%.

Let’s deconstruct these in reverse order.

Amazon doesn’t want its workers to stick around too long because once they do, they lose some of their initial enthusiasm for the job. So Amazon encourages high turnover with policies like cutting off step raises after three years and rarely promoting from within.

Amazon isn’t a food company per se, but its attitude toward turnover – and implicitly, toward its floor workers – is shared by many manufacturers, of all kinds. Churning through workers may be a good short-term strategy, especially in locations where Amazon is one of the few employment options, but it’s hard to see how it can be viable in the long run. You can use up and burn out employees like light bulbs, but eventually the supply of bulbs will run out.

Burnout is one of the biggest problems at the Topeka plant, as will happen when employees are forced to work 84 hours a week in temperatures that can range up to 140°F at the chip fryers. One of the worst abuses is so-called “suicide shifts,” wherein workers are told that, after working for eight hours, they would be expected to show up four hours early for their next shift.

Frito-Lay was requiring those kinds of hours because they find the plant hard to staff. Do you suppose that there might be a bit of a downward spiral involved? People in the Topeka area see their spouses, siblings, parents or friends come home from the plant exhausted and drenched in sweat (when they see them at all), and they think, Why would I want to work there? Which leads to more staffing problems, which leads to more mandatory overtime, and down and down we go.

Of course, there’s an even bigger potential problem than burnout these days: Dying of a disease you caught on the job. Which brings up our first story.

Like many meat and poultry processors, Tyson Foods has had a terrible time in the pandemic. According to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Tyson has had more than 12,500 COVID cases in its plants, with 39 deaths, as of early August.

As it struggled to get out of the pandemic, Tyson was faced with an intolerable situation: vaccine resistance, a second plague atop the first. It set up vaccination sites at its plants; it paid workers to get the shots; but the vax rate for Tyson’s 56,000-odd workers stubbornly remained at less than half.

So CEO Donnie King issued a mandate on Aug. 3: Floor workers have until Nov. 1 to get vaccinated. “We take this step today because nothing is more important than our team members’ health and safety,” King wrote in the memo.

That’s a nice thought, but King could have added: “...insofar as it affects our operations.” Tyson hasn’t exactly been an innocent victim in the pandemic. It has been accused of egregious behavior, most notably a plant manager organizing a pool to bet on how many workers would get COVID, and is currently defending itself against several lawsuits.

The point is that as the food industry emerges from the pandemic, it has some choices to make regarding its attitude toward its workforce. Doing the right thing, like requiring vaccinations, is easy when there’s an immediate payoff, like having workers not die.

Once this low-hanging fruit is plucked, it’ll be time for food processors to decide how they want to relate to their workforce. Will they seek to establish a healthy long-term relationship by implementing measures that may have immediate costs, like raising pay and improving conditions?

Or will they go full Bezos?

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