Days away from its deadline, Tyson Foods reaches a 96 percent vaccination rate.

By Lauren Hirsch

Tyson was one of the first major companies to mandate vaccines after incentives like paid time off to be inoculated started to lose traction.
Tyson was one of the first major companies to mandate vaccines after incentives like paid time off to be inoculated started to lose traction.Credit...Daniel Acker for The New York Times

Nearly three months after Tyson Foods mandated coronavirus vaccines for all its 120,000 U.S. workers, more than 96 percent of them are vaccinated, the company’s chief executive, Donnie King, said in an employee memo on Tuesday.

Less than half of Tyson’s work force was inoculated when it announced on Aug. 3 that it would require vaccines. Nearly 60,000 more Tyson employees got the shot following the announcement, Mr. King said. Tyson has said workers must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1 as a condition of employment.

“This is an incredible result,” Mr. King wrote, “not only for our company, but for your families and our communities across the country.”

Tyson was one of the first major companies to mandate vaccines after incentives like paid time off to be inoculated started to lose traction. Its stance was notable because it included frontline workers even as labor shortage concerns prevented many companies from expanding vaccine mandates beyond the office.

Meatpacking involves close quarters and long hours, which make its workers particularly vulnerable to catching the coronavirus. A number of workers died last year after the virus swept through the nation’s processing plants.

“Has this made a difference in the health and safety of our team members? Absolutely,” Mr. King wrote of the vaccine requirement. “We’ve seen a significant decline in the number of active cases, companywide.”

Mr. King said he had “received many notes from team members who have helped convince others in their family, and in their community, to get vaccinated.”

Tyson has plants across the South and Midwest. In Arkansas, where it is based, 57 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

To help encourage vaccination, executives have visited plants to have small group conversations about the vaccines. The company also addressed common myths about the vaccine and took questions from employees at a panel that included two outside physicians.

“We hit this number thanks to the many, many thousands of individual conversations,” Mr. King said.

As part of its efforts, Tyson negotiated 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. The union’s president, Marc Perrone, applauded the vaccination efforts on Tuesday.

“Working together, the UFCW and Tyson set a new standard with this vaccine mandate, and have proved what’s possible when we listen to workers and negotiate the implementation of vaccination mandates fairly and responsibly,” Mr. Perrone said in a statement.

“We urge every company, across this country, to do what is right by their frontline workers and work cooperatively with their unions and employees to help end this pandemic and keep all of America’s essential workers and their families safe,” he added.

Tyson is offering employees religious or medical accommodations to the mandate and does not have a cutoff date for evaluating those considerations, a spokesman said. It will assess requests “based on careful consideration of the individual facts and our commitment to the safety of our employees.” Some unvaccinated employees granted exemptions, though, will be placed on leave.

“To those who remain unvaccinated — this is your choice, and we respect that choice,” Mr. King said. “If you change your mind and want to rejoin Tyson — let us know. Our doors are open.”

The results of Tyson’s vaccine mandate will be examined closely by other companies, as well as federal and local officials, as they weigh their own approaches to vaccine mandates. Last month, President Biden asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to order large employers to require vaccination against the coronavirus or weekly testing. Many companies are now preparing to move forward but have been awaiting more details.

So far, vaccine mandates have largely proven effective. United Airlines, which said in August that it would require all employees to provide proof of vaccination, recently announced that more than 99 percent of its work force was vaccinated. In California, health care employers have reported vaccination rates of 90 percent or higher.

Legal experts generally say companies have the right to make vaccine mandates, but there has been pushback, particularly from local politicians. Arkansas is seeking to require employers that mandate vaccines to allow for exemptions, including a testing alternative. And Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas issued an executive order banning private employers from mandating coronavirus vaccines.