It’s not every day, much less every year or every decade, that Sedgwick County has the opportunity to land a new company and 1,600 jobs all at once.
But there’s a chance that could happen, should Tyson Foods decide to build a $320 million chicken processing plant somewhere in the county.
What would those jobs be like? And would the plant fit with the county and its long-term growth plans?
The Eagle set out to find answers, through interviews with officials and an analysis of information. Here’s what we found.
What kinds of jobs are these?
Most of the 1,600 jobs would be for processing the chicken — slaughtering, cutting, marinating and packaging. Those jobs would pay between $13 and $15 an hour, said Tyson Foods spokesman Worth Sparkman. No jobs would pay under $13 an hour, he said.
The plant also would offer some more-skilled jobs for managers, truck drivers, maintenance for the plant’s equipment and people who are certified to work on refrigeration equipment.
“The plant has to be refrigerated to produce food,” Sparkman said. The maintenance and refrigeration jobs would pay $20 or more an hour, he said.
A more specialized set of jobs probably would have to be filled by people from outside the county, at least in the beginning, he said. Those jobs are what the company calls service technicians, people with a background in raising chickens who can support the farmers who are raising chickens for the plant. A lot of that work is performed outside the plant. “These might be jobs that initially have to be filled out of the area,” he said.
Tyson’s chicken processing plants operate two shifts with the third reserved for sanitizing the plant, which is usually done by a third-party contractor, Sparkman said. He said most of the jobs would be full time and include medical, dental and vision insurance, 401(k) retirement plan and stock options.
Are they safe?
A search of enforcement actions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration against Tyson in the past five years turned up hundreds of thousands of dollars in proposed fines and at least five separate incidents of employee safety violations, the most serious of which included a death, a severed hand and a finger amputation.
The death occurred in March 2012 at the company’s beef processing plant in Dakota City, Neb., according to an Aug. 27, 2012 news release from OSHA. A chain holding a piece of equipment above a mechanic failed; the equipment fell and crushed the mechanic.
In June 2013, a worker’s hand was severed by an unguarded conveyor belt at the company’s Hutchinson prepared foods plant. According to a Dec. 17, 2013, OSHA news release, the worker was cleaning conveyor equipment where the guarding had been removed. The moving gears weren’t locked out to prevent unintentional operation, and the employee’s arm was pulled into the gears.
And last year, OSHA cited a Tyson chicken processing plant in Center, Texas, after an employee’s finger became stuck in an unguarded conveyor belt as he tried to remove chicken parts jammed in the belt, according to an Aug. 16, 2016, OSHA news release.
OSHA does not maintain a nationwide, illness and injury database specific to Tyson, OSHA spokeswoman Rhonda Burke said in an e-mail.
Poultry processing had an nonfatal injury and illness incident rate of 4.3 per 100 full-time workers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics report based on 2015 data. That compares with an incident rate of 5.1 for beef processing, 4.7 for food manufacturing and 3.8 for all manufacturing.
Do we have the work force?
Tyson would have little problem finding readily available workers in the Wichita area’s labor market, said Jeremy Hill, director of Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Research and Business Development.
To determine that, he analyzed the area’s labor force, looking at the number of people receiving unemployment insurance – about 12,300 according to the latest data – as well as the skills needed by production workers at the plant.
Most of the plant’s jobs are low-skilled and largely require a high school diploma or equivalency.
He added that jobs in management and equipment maintenance “are probably really easy occupations to fill in the market.”
“Wichita’s labor market is not really tight in terms of manufacturing, and the overall size of our market is more flexible,” Hill said.
Are the jobs a good fit?
Tyson scuttled plans to place the plant near Tonganoxie, population 5,300, after residents there opposed it and county officials withdrew incentives that had been offered.
Sedgwick County also has people who oppose the plant, citing concerns about air, ground and water pollution, worker safety and well-being, high turnover, impact on social services and schools, and the impact of heavy trucks on county roads.
“They say jobs for 1,600 workers but they’re low-skilled,” said Janice Bradley of #NoTysonSedgwickCounty. “It’s a mutifaceted opposition we have, but it centers on Tyson and what it brings to the community. These costs that we end up having to pay are huge.”
In response, Sparkman referred to an April 2017 statement from Tyson about its commitment to expand efforts to create a better workplace at its production facilities. That includes renewed efforts to achieve zero worker injuries and illnesses, zero turnovers and a 10 percent year-over-year improvement in job retention. A pilot compensation program at two chicken processing plants increases base wages and accelerates the time it takes for workers to move to a higher pay scale.
Sedgwick County and the Greater Wichita Partnership public-private economic development group are interested in the project and say they are evaluating it.
That’s because it fits among the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth’s eight industry clusters, specifically agriculture, said Greater Wichita Partnership spokeswoman Jaimie Garnett.
“That’s one of the reasons why we’re exploring this opportunity,” she said.
The blueprint is an economic initiative led by the partnership to focus on expanding eight types of industries in which the 10-county region has the skilled workforce, companies and expertise to build from. The other industry clusters: advanced manufacturing; advanced materials; aerospace; data services and information technology; health care; oil and gas; and transportation and logistics.
According to the blueprint, the region’s agriculture cluster consists of food production, starting with the farm and ending with processing. The sector includes wet milling, crushing oilseeds, refining and blending vegetable oils, as well as cut and pack meat processing and meat by-products. The blueprint says the current cluster “is a strong regional base of mature companies that provide stable employment.”
Garnett pointed to Dold Foods’ $132 million expansion of its bacon plant at 2929 N. Ohio as an example of growth in the blueprint’s agriculture cluster. Dold officials have said the 275-employee plant will add 384 jobs over the next five years that will pay about $17 an hour. Dold began work on the expansion in September.
On Friday, the partnership said it has been working with the Kansas Department of Agriculture to gather the in-depth information from Tyson Foods needed to begin the process. It also has formed a project team with experts to help it identify possible sites and determine what infrastructure would be needed to support the plant.
“Given the unique nature of this project, we are gathering the information to fully understand the project at the same time as the community conversation begins on the idea of a Tyson project,” the partnership said in its statement Friday. “Our focus is to gather the information so that elected officials and the community can have a full conversation.”
The partnership said it expects to provide an outline and estimated time line of its process on the Tyson project in the next few days.