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Is Tyson Really That Generous?

Its early December, that post-Thanksgiving purgatory before Christmas and New Years Eve, when working seems futile, but resting is not an option. Instead of work deadlines many of us are instead dreaming of gifts, of how thankful we are for all we have and how much we can afford to share with the ones we love.

Which is why it struck me when I heard that Tyson Foods decided to give back some of their wealth to their essential workers. The company announced this week - in a statement that was shared far and wide in the news media - that they would pay those that worked in their meatpacking facilities and other pandemic frontline employees $50 million in a holiday bonuses.

Wow, I thought - $50 million. That sounds laudable, generous even.

But then I read on. The company will pay the one-time award to 86,000 workers, which boils down to $300-700 a check. In other words, if you were a full-time employee who worked 40 hours a week for the last year (52 weeks), your bonus would come out to about $1.50 a day for risking a Covid infection by coming to work.

To add to that, amid the high grocery prices and companies complaining of food supply disruptions, a few weeks ago Tyson announced it made twice as much in the fourth quarter of 2021 as it did in 2020. The company reported fiscal income for 2021 of $3 billion. In other words, Tyson made a profit that is more than 60 times what they are offering now to pay the employees who made it all possible.

If we take the analysis a step further, Tyson’s CEO salary - compensation of almost $11 million in 2020 - is equivalent to what the company they will award to 17,000 of their employees.

After writing my book, Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America, I have been asked repeatedly if consumers pay too little for food. The question is usually phrased something like, “If farmers, farm and food workers and restaurant employees often make below a living wage, should the American public pay more for the food we eat?”

I say, let's start with the much lower hanging fruit - CEO pay and company profits.

Let’s be clear that the current higher prices of food in the grocery stores is not because companies are losing money and need to charge more; it is because so few corporations control most of the food in the supermarket and can charge what they like. The storyline of disturbed food chains and supply issues, while perhaps somewhat true logistically, are also convenient financially.

And it is not only the frontline employees that lose out on a slice of the real bounty. The price farmers make at the grain elevator is typically not tied to the cost of food in the grocery store - when Tyson or JBS or General Mills make more money in a given year, there is never a pay out to farmers thanking them for their hard work.

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Let’s just look at a box of Kellogg’s corn flakes for example. According to today's internet search, a 24 oz box at Walmart (today’s largest grocer, with sales of $341 billion in 2020) is $3.64. Meanwhile the price of a bushel of corn right now (it changes moment to moment) is $5.89. At 56 pounds of corn in a bushel, that is enough to make 37 boxes of Corn Flakes. For the $5.89 for that bushel of corn a farmer gets, consumers pay almost $135 for boxed corn flakes, more than 20 times the amount.

The company says it spent $500 million over the past year boosting wages for employees. But that brought the average pay up to $18 an hour, according to the Muscatine Journal, $5 an hour under a living wage for that same town, according to the Living Wage Calculator.

So what would be more than just a PR act and actually be a generous bonus for employees? Instead of paying workers 1/60 of Tyson’s profits, what if they instead gave back the kind of money individuals are often encouraged to give by their churches - 10%? That would mean $300 million in bonuses to those 86,000 employees, or almost $3500 each, a more reasonable "thank you" for people who put their lives at risk to keep food on our tables.

And what if further, Tyson paid the farmers an extra 10% for their hard earned pork, chicken and beef? How much difference would that make in agriculture and in the small towns that dot America's rural landscape?

That would be impressive Tyson. It would show a willingness to support those who make your business what it is, an acknowledgement of how important employees and producers are to a company’s future. It would be giving back to communities in the form of real spending power.

That would be laudable. But why bother when not a single media organization questioned the generosity of the company. Perhaps that needs to change too.

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