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BOISE — The Idaho Organization of Resource Councils has joined several other worker advocacy organizations in a civil rights complaint, claiming meat processing companies Tyson Foods and JBS USA engaged in racial discrimination through their workplace policies around the COVID-19 pandemic.

The complaint was filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Agriculture because Tyson Foods and JBS receive federal financial assistance through the department. According to the complaint, all corporations that receive federal financial assistance are bound by Title VI of Civil Rights Act of 1964 that barres exclusion based on race, color, or national origin.

The complaint said Tyson received $109,389,928 in federal assistance to date in 2020 and JBS received $45,774,572.

Neither Tyson Foods nor JBS USA have meat processing facilities in Idaho, although JBS does operate a meatpacking plant in Hyrum, Utah, which is south of Preston, Idaho. That plant saw a coronavirus outbreak with nearly 300 confirmed positives earlier this year, the Logan Herald Journal reported.

The Food and Environment Reporting Network found as of July 6 there are around 292 meatpacking plants across the U.S. with confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The same network reports at least 40,081 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the virus and 138 have died from it. It also said nearly 90% of the affected workers were identified as Latino, Black or Asian.

In Idaho, 44 workers tested positive for the virus in a Burley beef packing plant, Ida-Beef. In Kuna, 20 workers at C.S. Beef Packers tested positive. In addition to the meat packing facilities, two Idaho food processing plants had workers test positive, including 20 at Fry Foods in Weiser and 50 at Rite Stuff in Jerome.

Samantha Guerrero, bilingual agriculture and food community organizer with the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, said the organization signed on to the civil rights complaint because it saw many cases of Latino workers in the local meat and food packing industry being exposed to COVID-19.

“These plants have policies that endanger workers, and the demographics of their workforce are Black and Latino dominated,” Guerrero said. “We see JBS and Tyson are not prioritizing Black and Latino worker safety.”

According to the complaint, Tyson and JBS have the first and second most reported cases of coronavirus in their facilities.

The workers advocacy organizations claim the policies at Tyson and JBS do not encourage a minimum of 6 feet of separation between workers, as required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the operations at the plants have not slowed down in the interest of distancing workers.

The complaint says Black, Latino and Asian workers make up 69.6% of frontline workers in meat processing facilities. The CDC reported Tuesday that 87% of the coronavirus cases found in meat packing plants occurred among racial and ethnic minorities even though they make up 61% of the worker population.

“The policies that discriminate on the basis of race by causing a substantial adverse effect on Black, Latino and Asian workers,” the complaint said. “In addition, the publicly available facts indicate a pattern or practice of discrimination. Existing social inequities compound this discrimination for Black and Latino workers, including higher death rates and higher hospitalization rates than white people.”

The complaint will go to the Civil Rights Division of the USDA to await an investigation or remedy, the Washington Post reported.

JBS told the Washington Post it welcomes reviews of its practices is response to the pandemic, and Tyson said it was still reviewing the complaint, but that the company’s priority is the health and safety of its workers.

Rachel Spacek is the Latino Affairs and Canyon County reporter for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at rspacek@idahopress.com. Follow her on twitter @RachelSpacek.

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