By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO (Reuters) -Tyson Foods Inc said on Friday that labor unions have agreed to support its requirement for U.S. employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by November, and the company will offer new benefits to workers including paid sick leave.
Companies have been working to incentivize employees to get vaccinated through bonuses and other benefits as the highly contagious Delta variant drives an increase in U.S. coronavirus infections. In some instances, employees who do not get shots face penalties like higher insurance costs.
Tyson, the biggest U.S. meat company by sales, said on Aug. 3 that U.S. employees must get vaccinated, though the requirement for unionized plant workers was subject to negotiations.
The company has now won support from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represent more than 80% of Tyson's 31,000 unionized workers in the United States, it said in a statement.
Tyson runs slaughterhouses in rural areas where some residents have been reluctant to get vaccinated. In Iowa, where Tyson operates pork plants, 49% of residents are fully vaccinated, according to state data. Nationwide, 53% of the total population and 62% of people eligible for vaccines have been fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The UFCW, America's largest meatpacking union, said it secured 20 hours of paid sick leave per year for Tyson employees as part of negotiations over the mandate. It is the first national U.S. agreement to provide paid sick leave to meatpacking workers, the union said.
All Tyson employees can begin earning the 20 hours starting on Jan. 1, the company said.
The UFCW initially expressed concerns over the mandate because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not fully approved vaccines, instead granting approval for emergency use. Last week, the FDA granted full approval to Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE's shot.
Tyson said more than 90,000 employees, or 75% of its U.S. workforce of 120,000, have received at least one dose of a vaccine, up from about 56,000 before the mandate.
Some workers can be exempt from the mandate for religious or medical reasons, according to the UFCW.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)