Photos provided by Tyson Foods
Debra Vernon is tired.
The senior director of corporate social responsibility at Tyson Foods and her team of 14 have been in all-hands-on-deck mode since the COVID-19 pandemic struck the Natural State. Six members of her crew have been focused on nothing but supporting the company’s various locations and manufacturing centers, the people who work there and the communities in which they reside.
But even though you can practically feel the weariness in her voice, Vernon downplays the physical and mental toll of the past few weeks. She’s much more focused on the status of the food giant’s 141,000 workers across its worldwide network of facilities and the thousands more who depend on Tyson paychecks to pay the bills.
“My boss, John Randal Tyson, our chief sustainability officer, shared with me that he used to walk down the halls when he was a little boy and his grandfather [Don Tyson] used to tell him, ‘These are real people, and we have to take care of them,’” she said. “That’s how the company is to this day; very aware of its place in the local community, but also the broader community as a food company.”
Tyson’s actions during the global pandemic’s assault on all aspects of life draws from this simple philosophy. At a time when its employees and the wider public need it most, the Springdale-based company has stepped up to demonstrate an admirable profile of corporate responsibility.
“One of the reasons why I was attracted to this company to start with was because it was represented to me as one of the most caring companies,” said Vernon, who joined Tyson three years ago. “I’ve found that to be true since I’ve gotten here. Putting our purpose in action is what my team does, but it’s more than just my team. We have a group of folks that are part of a network of disaster relief teams across the business that respond to disasters.”
In March alone, Tyson’s response to COVID-19 reached $11 million in food donations to thousands of individuals both inside the company and through community activism. In addition, the company committed $2 million via various grants programs and implemented myriad employee measures to help workers deal with the fallout from the pandemic.
“We are a food company, so the first thing that we’re going to do in emergency situations is feed people,” Vernon said. “We’ve donated, as of this week [March 30], about 4.9 million pounds of protein and that equates to over 16 million meals. We give that out to the Feeding America food banks which are large regional food banks. We also have a network of community pantries in Tyson communities.
“We’ve deployed semi-trailers full of somewhere between 35,000 to 40,000 pounds of product. We’re sending those out to our plant locations and then our plant locations facilitate delivery out to our team members. We also have been developing food boxes for our drivers. They have been on the road for extended periods, and they have difficulty accessing food because nothing’s open.”
Vernon said the next phase is to augment schools with products in support of feeding programs which are critical in many communities now that the majority of schools across the country are closed to classes, likely until the fall term.
“Most schools have summer meal programs and so we want to make sure that they have the product they need to continue feeding the kids,” she said. “We’re looking at continuing to support the schools because that is really the pillar of these communities. It provides child care. It provides feeding programs. It’s really a central location for us in addition to our pantries.”
The company’s grant programs, $2 million in all, are divided between funding local organizations and the needs of employees.
“Community grants, right now, equal about $1.2 million,” Vernon said. “We also have an emergency assistance fund called Helping Hands. Our team members can get grants of up to $1,500 to help in times of personal emergency. We established another event category called ‘Epidemic’ and underneath that, the expenses we can reimburse for include utilities, mortgage, rent, food, child care, health care.
“We are also offering matching giving opportunities for those team members who want to give to nonprofits, especially those who are supporting the COVID response efforts. We will match their donation on a three-to-one basis.”
Vernon, who previously worked for a national water company, has experience with mobilizing disaster relief, notably post-Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She said executing the Tyson plan took a combination of leveraging existing programs, such as logistics or Helping Hands, while staying nimble enough to launch other initiatives for changing needs.
“In our typical disaster response, we’re used to getting food to where it’s needed most on an urgent basis. That really comes naturally to us,” she said. “The harder part is sitting down to say, ‘OK, of all the people who are impacted, what are we going to do and who’s going to do it? How are we going to help our customers? How are we going to help our team members? How are we going to help our communities?’
“We put in that kind of framework, then we started slotting things in, saying this is what we’ve already got going, and we can segue into that fairly easily. But then there’s those things where in a disaster, you’re flying on the wing trying to get things where they need to go. As a guy on my team who handles disasters always says, ‘Every disaster is different.’”
Of course, unlike a localized emergency that can be supported from other locations, the COVID-19 crisis was felt everywhere on Earth, meaning new emergency processes and policies had to be implemented system-wide. Meeting that challenge was critical to maintaining production which not only fueled the emergency donations but kept food flowing to grocery store shelves.
“I’ve been with Tyson Foods for 28 years in June; I’ve been an executive in Human Resources for about 13 years,” said Hector Gonzalez, senior vice president of human resources for Tyson’s U.S. businesses. “I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude, and I have yet to run across any other organization that’s had a chance to do some type of mock exercise on something of this caliber.
“As a member of the critical business infrastructure, we know we have to continue to produce food to feed America. We feel obligated to do so in the absolute safest way possible.”
Gonzalez said the company broke the massive effort down into broad, basic components: adjust the work environment to minimize the chance for transmission, give a streamlined mechanism for those who should stay home and protect jobs and earnings in the process.
“We’ve done that by way of taking temperatures at the start of team members’ workday for the sake of identifying people that might be symptomatic and isolating them from others,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve shown creativity such as slowing down chain speeds to ensure we can run with fewer people and create a little more space between people.
“We’ve erected tents outside of our plants to create makeshift break rooms where our team members can go enjoy a meal, relax and not have to sit in the same break room with a larger group of people. There’s so much creativity being applied across all plants to ensure all team members are safe.”
In addition, the company quickly adjusted HR policies and benefits restrictions, including eliminating any punitive effect for missing work due to illness, waiving the waiting period for short-term disability benefits and dropping co-pays, refill limits and deductibles for COVID-19 testing, maintenance medications and use of telemedicine.
Perhaps most importantly are the efforts Tyson has put forth to keep employees in place and whole even as hourly job loss spiked across other industries. Gonzalez says team members did not suffer any negative wage effects as a result of changes in shifts and as a result, turnover has been virtually nil.
“We haven’t seen an impact to people retention as a result of the adjustments we’ve made,” he says. “We’ve simply compensated people for the gaps [in work hours] we’ve had to create.”
As the unprecedented month of March came to a close, Tyson topped its efforts by announcing $60 million in special bonuses to 116,000 front-line employees. The $500 bonus, to be delivered this summer, was given for performance under extraordinary conditions.
“We’re proud of how our team members have stepped up during this challenging time to make sure we continue fulfilling our critical mission of feeding people across America,” Tyson Foods CEO Noel White said in a press release. “The bonuses are another way we can say ‘thank you’ for their efforts.”
Gonzalez says the creative thinking continues at Tyson. Daily cleaning has been enhanced in high-traffic areas and use of temporal thermometers will soon give way to infrared scanners to check employees’ daily temperature, a system perfected by in-house Tyson engineers. These and other measures will have a lasting impact on operations post-COVID-19.
“This has been a huge learning experience for all of us,” Gonzalez said. “I think this will make us better because it has forced us to think differently and creatively and care about people in unique ways that we haven’t before. We’ve invested in infrared thermometers that are designed to not only take a person’s temperature but also include facial recognition. There are tools and methods that we have quickly subscribed to that were not [previously] part of our arsenal.
“The situation, as impactful and devastating as it will be for us and for others, will teach us a lot about new ways to run our business and care for our people.”
Vernon said whatever new lessons the company may gain from the crisis, the fundamental underpinning of Tyson Foods’ corporate ethos remains solidly intact.
“Our purpose is raising the world’s expectations for how much good good can do,” she said. “I was here when that purpose statement was developed a few years ago. It perfectly encapsulates what this company is about and how seriously they take their role in supplying the world. This is the most recent example.”