Law360 (July 9, 2020, 9:36 PM EDT) -- Tyson Foods, JBS USA and their subsidiaries have taken millions of dollars in federal contracts while rolling out a COVID-19 response that puts Black, Latino and Asian meat processing workers at greater risk than white managers, according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Worker advocacy groups Food Chain Workers Alliance, Rural Community Workers Alliance, HEAL Food Alliance, American Friends Service Committee — Iowa, Idaho Organization of Resource Councils and Forward Latino filed the civil rights complaint Wednesday with the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. They say that the companies, including subsidiaries Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., Keystone Foods LLC and Pilgrim's Pride Corp., should be held to account for discrimination they carry out while they take $150 million from USDA programs that support child nutrition and food assistance, as well as aid for farmers hurt by foreign tariffs.
The companies met consumer demand for meat production during the pandemic by ignoring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to space workers more than six feet apart, the groups said. This subjected the companies' rank-and-file workforce, which largely is comprised of people of color, to heightened risk of exposure, they said. On the other hand, white managers didn't face the same exposure, according to the complaint.
"This is widespread, severe racial discrimination," Brent Newell, lead attorney representing the workers, told Law360. "It's the USDA's obligation to prevent racial discrimination and to ensure that its recipients do not receive federal dollars and engage in discrimination."
The claims rest on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits race, color and national origin discrimination by organizations that receive federal funding. Title VI requires each federal agency to administer its own civil rights program to ensure fund recipients do not discriminate. The complaint said the companies have operations in 19 states that received federal dollars.
A Tyson spokesperson said it and Keystone are reviewing the complaint and added that "our top priority is the health and safety of all our team members, their families and the communities where our plants are located. We've transformed the way our plants operate to protect our team members, implementing measures such as symptom screening before every shift."
Tyson pointed to a June 26 statement from the League of United Latin American Citizens, a civil rights group, that noted progress it had seen for meatpacking workers during the pandemic. LULAC called for new federal funding and legislation to protect plant workers from the novel coronavirus. It didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
JBS and Pilgrim's Pride said in an emailed statement that they "have maintained our operations and the jobs they create only when we believe our facilities to be safe," adding that they "followed, and often exceeded, CDC guidance." They also said they "welcome any review of our practices and response to the pandemic, along with the many opportunities we provide our team members from every background imaginable."
The USDA didn't immediately provide a comment.
The groups are represented by Brent Newell and Kristina Sinclair of Public Justice PC, Matthew Morgan and Anna Prakash of Nichols Kaster PLLP, and David Seligman of Towards Justice.
Counsel information for the companies was not immediately available.
The case is Food Chain Workers Alliance et al. v. Tyson Foods Inc. et al., case number unavailable, before the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service.
--Editing by Adam LoBelia.
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