Editorial: Mixed reaction on Tyson plant

The announcement that Tyson Foods will build a poultry processing plant 10 miles from Lawrence near Tonganoxie represents an economic opportunity and also raises valid concerns about the history of such plants in other areas.

From an economic standpoint, the poultry plant is a major investment by Tyson, who will spend an estimated $320 million to build the plant. The plant will employ approximately 1,600 people earning wages of $12 to $15 per hour or $25,000 to $31,000 per year. That’s $40 million to $50 million in annual payroll. The addition of 1,600 private-sector jobs would be one of the most significant projects in recent memory for Northeast Kansas in general and for Tonganoxie and Leavenworth County specifically.

The plant is expected to be operational by 2019. Tyson will contract with Northeast Kansas farmers and ranchers to raise chickens. The processing plant will produce prepackaged trays of fresh chicken to stock retail grocery stores nationwide.

“Growing Kansas means we must grow the food and agriculture sector which accounts for nearly 45 percent of the state’s economy,” Gov. Sam Brownback said as he announced the plant. “The far-reaching impact of this development will be felt by farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses and communities throughout eastern Kansas. This is a step in the right direction to further diversify and grow our state’s economy.”

But forgive area residents if not all are as sold on the processing plant.

There is no shortage of information available on working conditions at poultry processing plants. The National Center for Farmworker Health reports that poultry plant workers are in “3-D” jobs that are dirty, dangerous and demanding. Workers are under intense pressure to process more than 100 chickens per hour and face a rate of injury that is 1.5 times higher than the average for all U.S. workers, according to a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome was found in 42 percent of poultry plant workers in a 2012 study.

While the Tyson plant will employ 1,600 people, a majority could come from outside the community. Tyson and other poultry processing plants have had a difficult time getting local workers to fill plant openings. Often, immigrants from countries around the world are brought in to work in the plants.

It’s too early to tell what impact the Tyson plant will have on Northeast Kansas. The best strategy might be to keep an open mind on what the plant can do for the area while keeping an open eye on the working conditions employees face.